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Tom Hegen’s aerial photos reveal the hidden beauty of airports


Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

For many travelers, empty runways and lines of planes on the ground represent the frustrations of the past year. For aerial photographer Tom Hegen, however, the disruption to airports around the world caused by Covid-19 has presented a unique opportunity.

“I had already had the idea of ​​photographing airports, but I never even thought of asking (access), because they are very restricted and highly secure,” he said during a telephone interview from Munich, Germany, where he lives and works. “Usually you would never have the chance to fly a helicopter with an open door over a fully operational airport. That would be impossible.”

With canceled flights around the world and air traffic reduced to a trickle, Hegen gave it a shot. And although obtaining the clearance was “long and complicated,” he eventually gained access to six of Germany’s largest airports, spending up to two hours in the sky above each one.

Hegen often incorporated terminal architecture into his aerial shots. Credit: Tom Hegen / Hatje Cantz

The resulting images, brought together in a new book “Aerial Observations on Airports”, reveal an unexpected beauty, the German photographer finding moments of symmetry and geometry amid parked planes. Warehouses, parking lots, containers and terminals all play a part in the surreal imagery, creating a sense of scale and, often, presenting their own designs.

Taking what he called a “graphic approach,” Hegen also delved into the intricate and colorful markings of the asphalt when building his photos. Painted lines indicating taxiways and holding positions created pleasing models, while highlighting the complex systems that underpin airport operations.

“Some of the photos look like illustrations,” said Hegen, who also works as a graphic designer. “They almost look artificial – like the lines were added in post-production.”

Tom Hegen’s aerial photos reveal the hidden beauty of airports

The photos capture everything from small jets and helicopters to cargo planes and commercial airliners. Credit: Tom Hegen / Hatje Cantz

The world above

The immaculately composed images belies the physical challenges of shooting from a helicopter about 2,000 feet above the ground. Hegen remained in constant communication with the pilot, who in turn chatted with air traffic controllers and cleared the airspace for the few flights still underway.

“Working from a helicopter is quite difficult because you’re up against the elements,” said Hegen, who has seen several overseas projects postponed due to the pandemic. “You have wind coming from the main rotor … (and) it can be so cold you can’t feel your fingers or press the shutter.”

Yet it is familiar territory for Hegen. Specializing in aerial imagery, he often charters hot air balloons and small planes for his work, as well as custom drones to capture the world from above.

Related video: Tom Hegen’s aerial photos show the human impact on Earth.

His previous book “Habitat” saw him documenting the impact of human activity on the natural world, from quarries and industrial facilities, to polluted waterways and salt farms made to look like abstract paintings. And if the photographer is wary of “pointing fingers”, his photos encourage viewers to think about the impact of their consumption.

In contrast, his new series of airports is more festive about the human complexity found in airports. But the footage nonetheless raises confronting questions, with Hegen observing that the aviation industry has long benefited from the very human interconnectivity that has inadvertently contributed to the spread of Covid-19.

“It’s a little ironic that the airlines responsible for globalization are the biggest losers in this pandemic,” he said.

Tom Hegen: aerial observations on airports, Published by Hatje Cantz, is available now.

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