It turns out capturing Antigua from the air is a fine art. At least it is for British photographer Tommy Clarke, who hung face-down out of a helicopter with a super long lens camera to produce artistic portraits of the island's curly coastline.
"These days with the prevalence of drones in aerial photography, I seem to be in the old guard by hiring helicopters and taking the door off, harnessing myself in and then hanging out – I doubt flying a remote controlled drone is quite as exhilarating."
Says the seasoned aerial snapper. He no longer feels any fear when he's hanging high in the sky but has much more practical concerns and is totally focussed on getting the right photos. Tommy explained his fears:
"I used to get more worried about how much the helicopters cost me per hour than falling out of them! The adrenalin hits me when I realise I've managed to get the shots I've been planning for months and months – that's where I get my buzz – and then seeing what people's reactions are is also a big kick!"
It's just as well that Tommy has his nerves under control as it requires an incredibly steady hand, a creative eye and technical expertise to capture these kind of shots. To help keep the camera steady, Tommy says he uses:
"...shutter speeds high enough to keep the vibrations (from the helicopter) out and sometimes gyroscopic stabilisers."
The resulting poster-sized images, on show at Antigua's Admiral's Inn until the end of June, are startling works of art both exacting and surreal, and awash with the cerulean hues of this pocket paradise in the West Indies.
The knowledge that these abstract works are real pictures taken by a daredevil dangling far above only serves to enhance their impact. Curves of sea and land appear as impressionist brush strokes across a canvas, while the presence of people in the landscape is marked by the tiny bright dots and dashes of umbrellas, sun beds, boats and bodies in and out of the water.
The images represent a never-before-seen angle on some of Antigua's most famous patches of coastline. From the sky, the great swathe of Cades Reef hugging the south coast and the unspoilt arc of sand at Half Moon Bay look like abstract paintings, elevating Antigua's beauty to new levels.
On an island famous for its 365 beaches – one for every day of the year – it's little surprise that many of them are depicted in the collection. No less than eleven photographs of pristine white and turquoise shores that include some of the best – Curtain Bluff, Jumby Bay, Valley Church, South Beach, Darkwood beach and Half Moon Bay – are surprisingly diverse and a world apart from the cliched tourist pictures.
One of the most pleasing pictures, Rainbow Umbrellas, looks like smarties had been scattered across an unnamed stretch of paradise beach. I suspect this is the stunning shore of Dickenson Bay in the west, home to a giant Sandals all-inclusive resort. In South Beach you can see the fine coralline sand mixing with the opal water as it laps the shore, while neatly arranged sunbeds and umbrellas snake along the water line. But some of the most fascinating images require you to look even closer.
I met exhibition PR and Tommy's old school friend Charlotte Williams at Admiral's Inn, who tuned me in to some of the finer points of the photos. It was only after taking the photo Dashdot, for instance, that Tommy saw the strange Braille-like shapes created by the umbrellas and sunbeds on the sand. Another shot, of Antigua's fringing coral reefs, is captivating on both a macro and micro scale. A boat appears abandoned on the water, but if you study it closely you can see the tiny shapes of snorkelers hidden in the image like the picture-book game "Where's Wally".
After attuning their eyes to the massive scale of the pictures, locals and mariners familiar with the area begin to recognise some of the locations. Charlotte was surprised at the number of people at the show preview who knew the exact spot featured in Shipwreck, for example. In fact I had been with a group on a catamaran a few days earlier who snapped pictures of the shallow sandy outcrop without seeing the shadow of the wreck beneath the waves. The image of Half Moon Bay is unmistakable but Tommy offers a fresh take that highlights its uniqueness and interesting composition of sedimentary rock at the lip of the bay, that includes the mineral-rich clay that I slathered all over my skin on a recent visit.
The only two images not directly depicting the shore are perhaps the most artistic – Tommy has perfectly framed and filtered everyday tennis courts into geometric modernist work of art. Although less abstract than the other pieces, I was also drawn to the portrait of Fort Berkeley for its colour, detail, impossible angle and the way the manmade meshes with the natural. The crumbling fortification on a headland of English Harbour was once a key part of the British colonial defence of the island.
Tommy was inspired to create his photos of Antigua after Charlotte Williams moved to the island and effused about its beautiful shores. But he has long had an interest in the interaction between land and sea, having grown up on England's south coast and spending every childhood holiday at the beach.
"I fell in love with the landscape and beach. No one would go to the beach with a beige towel, beige beach brolly and beige swimsuit. Instead we all get out the brightest colours we have and sprawl ourselves along the sand. Capturing the swathes of colours, like paint on a canvas effectively, was what first drew me in to aerial photography."
This is the latest of his projects to capture the coast. He has honed his craft as an aerial photographer in other destinations such as the Canary Islands and Mexico. His first series, Shore, featured a lofty take on the wide busy sands and colourful surfboards of Sydney's Bondi Beach in Australia.
Since then he has created incredible Rothko-esque shots of the USA's salt lakes for his collection Salt, as well as taking to the skies to capture unique angles on St Tropez, Mexico and many other places. Visit the photographer's website for more details.
The show had a wonderful setting in Antigua's premier heritage spot – Nelson's Dockyard – slated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admiral Nelson was once stationed at the quaint Georgian dockyard that's part of English Harbour, a location that also features in the Antigua photography collection. The iconic harbour is the oldest on the island and the Caribbean's sailing capital, hosting the world's most graceful and decadent yachts, as well as the renowned Antigua Sailing Week.
The photography exhibition was on display at the entrance to the dockyard in the atmospheric 18th century Admiral's Inn, which now houses a neat boutique hotel as well as the Pillars Restaurant. Its waterfront terrace incorporates the antique pillars of the old boat house.
I recommend going in the early afternoon and staying for drinks, dinner and live music from the Harbour Trio band.