The “it” factor. Some people just embody this ostensibly unquantifiable phrase, whatever their profession. We may not know how to define “it,” but we sure as hell know what it looks like.
Clearly, Zoe Wetherall has “it,” and she has it in spades. The Aussie has been authoring arresting images from on high for the better part of this decade. Over the last seven years, Zoe has taken photographs from hot air balloons, helicopters, and mountaintops as part of a personal project called “Earth.” The Melbourne, Australia native has culled shots around her hometown as well as places like New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.
This series shares my perspective of the world by documenting the environment around us. The pronounced contrast of the natural environment against the starkness of a human-made world is of particular interest to me. Having a bird’s-eye view enables me to document this contrast and use the landscape as a means of abstraction.
By eliminating the sky, horizon lines, and other normal points of reference I can focus solely on the earth’s colors and textures. Meticulously constructed areas are viewed from above with a focus on clean, simple form and human-made dividing lines. “Earth” highlights the banality and order of the suburban environment while showing the subtle beauty of the natural world from the air.
There’s a rather dense layer of irony to this work. While Zoe wanted to show the “banality and order” of human-made structures and how they differ drastically from creations of the natural world, she’s been passionate about the dynamics of human-made patterns since early childhood.
When I was around 3 or 4, I wanted to be a bricklayer because I was fascinated by the pattern of bricks in a wall. I am a fan of great design, and I’ve always been very particular and structured about the things I create. Other careers I momentarily considered when at school included becoming an architect, graphic designer, or industrial designer. This kind of work really fits with my personality and who I am. Even my apartment is minimal, neat, and well-organized.
Interestingly, this detail-oriented project started “somewhat by accident.” Zoe was vacationing in the U.S. — where she currently lives — back in 2012 and, essentially on a whim, used a hot air balloon trip to make the first images for “Earth.”
I took the opportunity to go in a hot air balloon while in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That’s the flight that started it all. I took my camera and ended up with a series of images from that flight, which resulted in a few awards and multiple exhibitions. I had so much fun and got some good results, so after that I slowly started to do more balloon flights.
I hadn’t done anything like this before this series, but it felt really natural for me. After that flight, it started to click for me that this is how I should be shooting. I didn’t really realize the way I see things and what my natural style and tendencies are when I shoot until I started this series.
With this epiphany as a guide, Zoe went back to her homeland and got down (up?) to work. She visited the Yarra Valley near Melbourne and whipped up images like this stunning shot.
Upon relocating to the states full-time, Zoe resumed the project and traveled all across America, taking eye-catching photos in such disparate locales as Manhattan …
and Hawaii …
Since this project took years to complete, Zoe had to constantly update her equipment to stay on top of her game.
I used Nikon DSLRs for this series. I’ve been using Nikon since I started photography, back when it was all film. I started [this series] with a D700, and then moved on to a D800E, and then to a D810, which is what I currently use. I have always loved these cameras and use them frequently.
Some limitations include shooting in low light (since most balloons fly at first light), so I have to watch out for noise at high ISO, and resolution — particularly if I end up cropping the image — as I like to print large. Cameras have gotten significantly better at eliminating noise and increasing resolution since I began this series, though.
Other variables to consider include the cost of a hot air balloon flight (not cheap, folks) and the fact that they can only happen if the weather cooperates. This forced Zoe to plan ahead, be flexible, and hope for some good luck along the way.
Since balloon flights are so weather-dependent, it’s not something I can do all the time. It also gets expensive, so it’s been a slow process to build up the series. Sometimes I’ll have to reschedule flights 4-5 times because of weather, and it could take a year to finally get the flight done. Other times, I will have more luck and do 4-5 flights in a year.
Once Zoe was up in the air, she was at the mercy of the wind and its influence on the balloon, meaning that mapping out a game plan beforehand could only get her so far. Ultimately, the unpredictability of a hot air balloon flight requires quick-thinking, improvisation, and, well, that “it” factor to get top-tier shots.
I usually do a flight to get a rough idea of the kinds of things I look for, like lines, texture, pattern, and color, but I never really have much of a plan since the direction of hot air balloons can’t really be controlled to photograph something specific. The pilot can alter direction by getting to different altitudes, but you are going where the wind takes you. Some flights I might end up with only one shot I like, and others I could get ten.
In order to make these images, Zoe had to negotiate extreme temperatures on opposite ends of the thermometer. This was the case whether she was floating in the air …
The Albuquerque flight was in January, and it was 19°F. I couldn’t feel my hands, feet, or face by the end of that flight. That’s the coldest one I have ever done, but the middle of winter makes the trees look really great. They become much more graphic without the leaves.
or trekking on treacherous terrain.
It was 95°F that day, and the rim of Bryce Canyon is roughly 9000 feet in elevation. I was quite sick with a chest infection at the time, but I was hiking around the canyon in the heat with my camera, which resulted in this shot. Not the most fun experience but totally worth it. It was such an amazing place to visit.
It’s been easier for Zoe to get to these places since settling into her new digs. She’s called New York City home for a few years now and, during this time, has found a platform for her work in the Big Apple as well as a laundry list of clients who are impressed by the images. And I mean, who wouldn’t be?
I frequently exhibit work at Front Room Gallery in the Lower East Side. The print I have there now will be there until October 13. At some stage, I will try to do a solo show at the gallery.
In terms of licensing to clients, this work could have multiple uses across many different spaces and for many different companies. I mostly try to sell them as fine arts prints, but occasionally I will license them for magazine use or something similar. I have also had clients who love this work — and my style in general — and end up hiring me to shoot architecture or interiors for them.
See more of Zoe’s work at zoewetherall.com.
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