Thursday, September 30, 2010

Inside the World’s Most Opulent Private Jets

Inside the World’s Most Opulent Private Jets

"The important high-tech instruments," says Nick Gleis, "are surrounded by the warmth and outer glow of an inviting command center. The lighting draws the viewer’s attention to the center - while the glow of the screens keeps the focus there." Photo: Nick Gleis

Gleis: "Utilizing the mirrored ceiling and specialized optics I was able to make the room appear much larger than it really is." Photo: Nick Gleis

"Combining the room lighting with supplementary lighting - then hiding the supplementary lighting so it doesn’t appear in the high-gloss cabinets - is always a major challenge." Photo: Nick Gleis

"Styling a photograph so that the room looks comfortable and inviting -- without overpowering the interior itself - requires a delicate touch. I often use a professional stylist I‘ve worked with for years to get just the right balance." Photo: Nick Gleis

"Designers go to great lengths to add fine details that sometimes become lost in overall room photos. About 20 percent of the photographs I take of large aircraft show small but important design elements in an artistic manner. Each element needs to be properly lit to accentuate the design and function artistically." Photo: Nick Gleis

Photo: Nick Gleis

Photo: Nick Gleis

"Dealing with reflections is always a major concern. Keeping both myself and my equipment out of the photograph is an art that takes many years of practice. Today’s technology allows the photographer more latitude with reflections, but one still needs to be very aware of them." Photo: Nick Gleis

"Lighting is everything. The highly reflective surface and the abalone shell made this photograph a real challenge to take." Photo: Nick Gleis

"On an aircraft the chairs, tables and divans cannot be moved other than to make small adjustments." Photo: Nick Gleis

Photo: Nick Gleis

"The reflection of the lighting behind the camera creates the effect of a golden angel spreading its wings. To achieve just the right look involves a lot of trial and error lighting - and more than a few hours." Photo: Nick Gleis

"Lavatories are always too small. Making such a small space look spacious without optical distortion requires the right equipment. The photographer must know how to minimize the inherent optical distortion of a very wide angle lens." Photo: Nick Gleis

"The combination of accent lighting, house lighting and photographer’s lighting must be effectively blended to give the viewer a clear feeling of what it’s like to stand in that room." Photo: Nick Gleis

For over 30 years, aviation photographer Nick Gleis has shot aircraft for the biggest aviation companies and the wealthiest of private clients. He is as likely to receive assignments from presidents, dictators or royalty as he is from Gulfstream, Boeing or Lear. Gleis’ photographs of large private jets are only one subset of his titanium portfolio, but they are by far the most intriguing. They are views into the expensive tastes of heads of state from around the world.
His striking series has been spreading from blog to blog recently, bringing disbelief to many viewers who would otherwise never get a window into this particular world of excess.
“My catch phrase is Capturing Aircraft Ambiance,” says Gleis. “Every photograph taken aboard an aircraft is an attempt to draw the viewer into the world that I am surrounded by when I take the photograph; a communication of the feeling that world gives me.”
Gleis has photographed over 800 private aircraft – ranging from the Lear 20 series to Boeing 747-400s. To date, he has photographed over 200 Gulfstream aircraft alone. Clients have included heads of state and royalty from Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China the United Arab Emirates. He closely protects client confidentiality, which is not an easy job when one routinely manages, tracks and delivers thousands of security-sensitive images.
Strictly a commercial photographer, Gleis recently dipped his toes into fine art waters with an unexpected invitation from Magnum photographer Martin Parr to exhibit at The Brighton Photography Biennial, or BPB. “Because of the nature of my work, which is about 90 percent corporate aviation, I do not generally participate in festivals or exhibits,” says Gleis.
It should be no surprise that Gleis’ commercial work appealed to Martin Parr, BPB curator. Parr’s career is defined by his color-saturated images of excess, from greasy plates of orange food guzzled by the U.K. working class to the bling of Dubai. Fascinated by displays of wealth, Parr cites his photographs of the nouveau riche in Moscow as his best work. Gleis’ lavish interiors of jet-set toys were a natural choice for The House of the Vernacular installation at Parr’s showcase.
Gleis’ crossover is not without its problems though. While BPB introduced his work to an entirely new, arty audience, it also gave rise to a recurring irritation for Gleis. “To the average eye,” he says, “it is not the photographic skills that draw the attention but the subject itself. That is always a bit of a problem for me.”
Protective of his art and proud of his technical prowess, Gleis doesn’t want his images used for pure titillation. “People tend to want to sensationalize the images and thereby make my clients look like they are ostentatious. I want people to see the quality of the photograph not just the record of what was there.”
Calling for a return to artistic verve, Gleis urges the photographer to do the leg work before clicking the shutter. “Pre-visualizing the final outcome, then assembling the necessary elements, is the way to create lasting images.” Pre-visualization is a philosophy Gleis adopted early in his career working with Ansel Adams, whose Zone System technique allowed a photographer greater control of exposure levels and made final results more faithful to his or her artistic vision.
“Far too many new photographers today rely on digital tricks and software to produce technically good images,” says Gleis, “but images that neither excite nor inform the viewer. I would advise all up-and-coming photographers to slow down and look at the scene very carefully. Is there a better angle? Is the lighting optimal? After all, lighting is everything.”
Gleis also photographs on air-to-air assignments, capturing exterior images of subject aircraft by using chase airplanes such B-25 Bombers, Gulfstream IIIs and IVs and Lear 35s with special optics. Sometimes these assignments require the use of mounts on the outside of aircraft, which has lead to a few interesting situations. Gleis shared this anecdote:
Employed to make a video of an executive BlackHawk Helicopter owned – and in this case piloted – by a South Asian royal family member, Gleis mounted a $30,000 USD BetaCam camera to the front skid. Gleis and two assistants chased in a Bell 202, ultimately with the intention to cut the two sets of footage together.
Flying and filming for an hour over the jungle, they broke formation and headed back to base. Twenty minutes later, after a royal joyride, his highness touched down. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.” Recalls Gleis, “There was no camera on the skid. The mount was there, but no camera.” Unwilling to accuse a royal family member of carelessness and accepting the loss of a $30,000 camera to the jungle, Gleis jokingly requested that if any monkeys were found in possession of expensive video equipment, it be seized and returned to him.
A royal smirk broke. The pilot had landed the chopper, removed and hidden the camera, then returned to witness Gleis’ panic. Before the reveal, the royal prankster ended with a flourish, issuing an order to his commanding officer, “All monkeys with video cameras should be arrested immediately.”
Gleis will not elaborate on the ownership of the jets. Brighton Photography Biennial pegs the photographs as “showing the luxury of African dictators’ private jets [from the] 1960s and 1970s” and groups them in a selection titled “The Archive of Modern Conflict.”
In the same month that the corrupt Nigerian government put in its order for three new presidential jets, politically minded bloggers have noticed the problematic nature of Gleis’ series. “Something about this one makes me think Angola. Any other guesses?” quips Glenna Gordon, a photojournalist based in West Africa, on her blog.
Shrouded in mystery, these photographs are as political as they are eye-catching. Client anonymity is Gleis’ core responsibility but it is also the series’ Achilles heel. Rightly or wrongly, human rights abuses and blood money have been associated with third-world rulers and the unavoidable information-gaps in Gleis’ images are susceptible to worst-case-scenario thinking by audiences.
Even if Gleis had the opportunity to reveal all and photograph the owners, he wouldn’t be interested, “I am happiest when I am shooting and it doesn’t really matter what I am shooting … with the exception of people. I would rather work at WalMart than shoot portraits or weddings.”

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