In the Museum’s exhibition Art of the Airport Tower, and companion book, dramatic stone and metal structures stretch out over muted skies speckled with clouds. Look closer. If you’re like photographer and museum specialist Carolyn Russo these photographs of airport towers reveal something else: Swiss cheese, birds, insects, and even top hats.
“I was looking at towers as these powerful beings in the airport environment,” she said. “I was trying to pull out personality traits from the towers.”
How does one even get the notion to photograph airport towers? For Russo, it was serendipitous.
In 2006, Russo was in the midst of photographing airplanes as abstractions for her second Museum exhibition, In Plane View: Abstraction of Flight. At the time she said, “I was looking at things a little differently.”
So when landing at La Guardia Airport in New York for a family trip, she recalled looking out of her airplane window and seeing a structure that was “creamy smooth” with “big dark circular windows.” That’s when she realized that the La Guardia Airport tower looked like Swiss cheese.
“Right then and there I knew I had a different view of towers that I could share with the world.”
Over the course of nine years, Russo has photographed 100 airport towers in 23 countries—50 appear in the exhibition and 85 appear in the companion book, Art of the Airport Tower.
She began local. She tested out her equipment and started to learn the different procedures that were required to gain access to airfields. At a Museum event, she casually discussed her idea with a stranger. By chance, that stranger was the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Her project was officially approved.
In the U.S., she photographed the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York—it looks like swan. She captured the distinct letters L, A, and X in the Los Angeles International Airport tower. And her photograph of the Fort Worth Alliance Airport tower in Texas reveals a very stork-like structure.
Her first international trip to photograph airport towers was to Finland. From there she began visiting neighboring countries like Norway and Sweden, and eventually she was getting the okay to visit airports around the globe.
In her travels, Russo tried to fit in as many photography sessions as possible, sometimes photographing two towers in one day. She would use Google Earth to scope out her shoots ahead of time and research lighting. During the shoots, she kept her fingers crossed for good weather.
Like her photographs from the U.S., Russo saw characters in the towers she was capturing overseas. The Dubai International Airport tower looked just like an insect. Heathrow Airport in London looked rather like a gentleman’s top hat. The Edinburgh Airport tower’s criss-crossed exterior combined form and function—its pattern is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also serves as the tower’s drainage system.
Of her travels Russo said, “No matter where I was around the world, everyone helped me. Aviation is such a wonderful community.”
The exhibition, which will remain on display at the Museum in Washington, DC until November 30, is divided into two categories: contemporary towers and historic towers. For the historic towers, Russo took a different approach.
“Rather than trying to transform them, I’m trying to preserve them,” she said. “These towers are a witness to a bygone era.”
This tact is especially apparent in her photograph of the Cincinnati Lunken Airport Tower. The tower bore witness to a historic flood in 1937. The height of the flood waters is marked on the tower with a plaque commonly referred to as a “black brick.”
In her exhibition and book, Russo said she tried to, “bring an awareness to the beauty of airport towers.” But she also wanted to use airport towers as a way to highlight the safety and standards that are a part of modern aviation.
Tomorrow, this particular aspect will be explored in depth at the Museum in Washington, DC and online in the panel discussion Control: Inside and Outside of the Airport Tower. Leading experts from the Air Traffic Control community will discuss the history, technological advancements, and design of airport towers and safety, as well as the remarkable true stories of composure and heroism from inside the tower. Russo will sign her book after the panel and the exhibition will be open for touring.