A crowded beachside car park, joggers splashing through the shallows: these are sights we’re familiar with, but looking at Tom Blachford's crisp images, we suddenly see them from a unique vantage point. We love how the Melbourne photographer’s mix of distance and clarity turns the mundane into the stunning, making these familiar scenes seem startlingly new. A group of brightly sailed dinghies moored by a pier resemble insects clustered on a branch; a Jet Ski’s wake creates an infinity loop across the waves. Shapes and forms hidden from us on the ground are revealed; the patterns we make with our lives become clear.
We are very familiar with Blachford’s photography – only a few years ago he shot for Broadsheet – but this Summertime Aerial series feels different. It feels voyeuristic – and we’re not ashamed to say we like that feeling. “You’re looking down on small things,” says Blachford. “It’s a strange perspective – to be shooting from so high up with such a long lens.” Critically praised and highly sought after, we chose to hang one of his prints in the area we are curating in collaboration with Stella Artois at Polo In The City. Blachford has his own ideas about why people have reacted so strongly to his photos. “I think the series has been well received because it’s a new perspective on something that’s quite inhuman,” he says. “To see something zoomed in really close, from quite far away, from an angle that looks like the one you would take if you were peering down at something.”
Blachford ’s dedication to his craft impresses us. Where other photographers are increasingly turning to drones for aerial shots, Blachford took the Aerial Summertime series the old-fashioned way: sitting in a small bubble-fronted Robinson helicopter with the doors off, 1000 feet in the air. It was the only way to get the result he wanted. “Drones kind of give a different effect that I don’t think would have worked quite so well,” he says. But for a man scared of heights, this wasn’t easy.
“I like pushing myself,” he says. “It gives you that lurching feeling, like when you walk up to an edge and you think, ‘Oh God, what would happen if I fell?’ But you trust the pilot and you just get to it.” And it’s paid off; his photos have a distinctly human warmth we can’t imagine a drone replicating. We love that he doesn’t take the easy way out and chooses to hurtle through the air, despite his fears.
Blachford’s pre-flight rituals revolve around preparation: “I use Google Maps to plan out the areas. Then we wait for a really hot day when we can get the right chopper and the right pilot and when there’s a bit of a southerly breeze so all the moisture drifts back out to sea. There’s been a few times when I’ve got to the airport, hopped in, we’ve started the chopper up, gone up to one thousand feet, looked at the horizon and said ‘nah’.”
Based out of Moorabbin, it’s an hour flight to the beaches he photographs with a Nikon D810 and a super-telephoto lens. We think his photos are incredibly well composed, so it’s interesting to find that he works more on instinct. “I’m shooting so fast at anything that catches my eye; I’m spraying the scene.” Often it’s the shapes he sees that draw his attention. “There’s a heap of blue, there’s something right in the middle, there’s something right at the edge of frame – it’s what appeals to my sense of composition and colour rather than trying to tell a story.”
It’s not until he’s back in the studio picking through his shots that he finds the little moments that have made this series so memorable. “I’m always surprised. I’ll zoom in on a kayak and I’ll see there’s a whole family and a dog in there that I had no idea about when I was taking the photo.” In capturing that surprise each photo becomes a story. Sure, we’re drawn to the colour and shapes aesthetically, but the narrative element really makes these photos stand tall as some of the best we’ve seen.
By making the familiar new and surprising – Blachford’s created a series of photos we can’t help but love. The people in them may be ant sized, but they’re still recognisable as Australians enjoying the beach in summer. But with distance, and from an angle that’s unusual yet not the unearthly perspective of top-down satellite shots, Blachford’s taken his subjects and made them universal. From afar we can put ourselves in their place, remembering a time when we were that person lying on a towel or splashing on a paddleboard.
We love this photo series because they’re portraits of us at the best of times.