As Pretty As … an Airport?

Writer Douglas Adams once observed, “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.’”

From the access roads that engorge and disgorge an infinite stream of cars; to the behind-the-scenes conveyor belts that somehow (but not always!) manage to deliver millions of bags to the right carousel; to the terminals that steer travelers past resources of fast food, booze, and important last minute trinket buying outlets; airports are concerned with functionality, to the point where this massive array of planning becomes, surreally, ‘invisible’ to the eye unless one looks closely.

There is one element of airports, though, that is usually the first (and maybe last) thing that we recognize as visible, as we approach the airport: all those air traffic control towers, jutting into the sky like inverted anchors, assuring us that we are at our first destination (and reassuring us that somebody is watching out for us once we’ve left the tarmac and ascended into the heavens).

Carolyn Russo , a photographer and museum specialist for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has gathered together her own photographic tribute to airport traffic control towers: Art of the Airport Tower, a 176-page hardcover monograph published by Smithsonian Books. It’s publication this month coincides with an exhibition (of the same name) at the National Air and Space Museum that runs from November 2015 to November 2016.

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Russo’s photos feature towers in a mélange of different architectural styles; capturing both the historical evolution of these structures, but also how cultural forces, in this multinational world, have shaped and represent local idiosyncrasies. For instance, in United Arab Emirates, in Dubai, the world’s only crescent shaped tower looms 109 meters into the sky; shaped like the prow of an indigenous vessel (a “dhow”), it resonates with the history of older forms of navigation.

In Oslo airport, Norway a glass tower is stitched with 98,425 feet of thread, creating a subliminal impression of webs and clouds. Back in the States, FDR’s New Deal Works produced LaGuardia Airport in 1940, and 26 years later, the terminal was adorned by a wonderful new Art Deco tower (referred to as “a design for a giant ice cream cone” by The New York Times).

Russo’s photograph of a tower at Barcelona El-Prat Airport, reminds us, however, that unlike the aforementioned works, some towers were built out of pure functionality; built in 1964, spiked with antenna over a brutalist concrete block, this tower echoes some of the worst architectural trends of the time.

And yet… Russo, shooting this tower in isolation, framed alone (and shot as elevated, like most of the photographs), manages to find a version of this tower’s own particular aesthetic beauty. It remains a compelling object; maybe, in this case, unconcerned with anything but function (unlike the Oslo tower; which features passenger-friendly “sound showers” that acoustically bathe weary travelers), but also unique, and otherworldly.

There is something ethereal and profound about the connections between these distant cousins; separate but connected over the skein of the planet; combining forces electronically, or taking responsibility over individual air spaces, for monitoring the safe passage of millions. There may be aesthetic differences between them, but none of these is a poor cousin, by dint of their function…

Russo is no stranger to combining flight and photography. Her previous four books – Art of the Airport Tower (2015), In Plane View: Abstractions of Flight (2007), Artifacts of Flight (2003), and Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots (1997) have accompanied an extensive array of sol and group exhibitions featured in the United States, Finland, and China. No surprise either that the National Geographic Traveler is a fitting home for her work as well as Science and Smithsonian.

A chance encounter with the Acting Administrator at the FAA was the slow fuse that ignited Russo’s eventual odyssey to 23 countries and the documentation of 100 air traffic control towers for the project. A maze of local permissions, logistics and life insurance certification, that would have daunted even the most experienced RTW veterans, was navigated in the process. As a viewer, looking at these images – which come over as both affectionate homage, but also as forensically objective – one can only hope that Russo’s jet lag was minimal, and her air miles considerable.

For exhibition and catalog details visit: http://airandspace.si.edu/files/pdf/airport-towers/tour-schedule.pdf

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