Action cams and social media have certainly helped us – people everywhere – embrace our vanity. It’s fair to say that particularly from the perspective of adventure sports, the combination of the two has upped the ante. But while we’re engrossed in showing off our latest images and footage online, it begs the question of how did photographers and film makers capture mind boggling perspectives of those at the cutting edge, before the action-cam era? And more pertinently, if they couldn’t readily show the images and footage to their buddies online, why were they going to extremes if they weren’t full-time pros? Furthermore, where did the pictures end up?
Firstly, this leads me to Leo Dickinson’s book ‘Filming the Impossible’, which recounts mind blowing feats while filming and photographing extreme athletes in the 70’s and early 80’s… If you think you’ve got a hard job carrying modern camera gear around, read it and weap! But ultimately the question of photographing and filming in this era leads to a humble place, and I’m pleased to see evidence of my own photographic heritage here, as my uncle has been scanning negatives photographed in his ‘Flying Days’ as a competitive hang-glider and hobbyist photographer in the 70’s and 80’s.
The images are a fantastic personal documentary of a truly extreme sport, but what blew my mind when seeing the images for the first time was the casual nature portrayed by the individuals in the photographs. As if running off a hillside strapped to a set of wings, whilst wearing jeans and a T-shirt, is the most natural thing in the world!
My uncle’s collection of photographs documenting an era of this sport ranges from novices being trained and taking their first flights, to high level alpine flying from the perspective of his birds eye view and also from the perspective of his gliders wing. What is now achieved through the ease of remote triggers & lightweight cameras, previously required a chunky camera with additional motor drive strapped to one wing-tip, while a balancing counter weight was on the other wing. A five metre shutter release cable was then fitted along the front of the wing, down and along the triangular frame, to where the button was positioned near his normal hand position. This kept hands in place to pilot the hang-glider as smoothly as possible, conscious of the additional weight at the wing tips.
Throughout the images the camera is scarcely acknowledged with very little ‘acting up’ and certainly not a ‘selfie’ in sight – without concern or hope that images might be circulating online the next day – there is the sense of a fantastic purity and simplicity in the freedom of this sport, which the subjects are utterly engrossed in.
This image is one of few with a subject looking at the camera, yet there is no dramatic reference from the subject towards the bent and distorted frame of the glider, it is what it is… an uncomfortable landing not to be repeated!
Other images within the series depict momentary actions within such awe-inspiring situations that it’s hard to believe they were taken nearly 40 years ago; to the untrained eye, without hang-gliding knowledge, it would be easy to believe the image above was shot in the last couple of years. For me this epitomises the progressive nature of the athletes and adds prominence to the humbling situations they are featured in throughout the images, whether that be above the south coast of England or the Alps.
Images such as the one above provide a sense of endeavour through the eyes of the pilot – cruising over geographical markers and getting a feeling of how far they could travel whilst trying to gain more altitude – aiming for the next bench mark and weighing it up against the distance to the landing site.
As a very brief summary to a small selection of images, the effort to fly gliders weighted with cameras, counter weights and cables is nothing short of dedicated and inspirational, and this effort is perfectly in tune with the humble documentary that it produced… an incredible series of images that have been hidden in the archive of a negative folder for decades. That they represent a lifestyle and hobby far from ordinary by todays standards is eye catching, but the fact that these athletes were photographed 40 years ago through the relaxed and casual eyes of a fellow pilot is even more enthralling.
All images ©AllanSmith, moral rights asserted.