Scott Mead Fine Art Photography

London  |  New York

Beginning with my own first journey above the clouds, many years ago, I have been deeply inspired while gazing out plane windows and often transported into an intense inner dialogue. Since that first flight, I have traveled extensively for education, work, and creative discovery and came to welcome the tranquil and clear perspective on past, present and future that comes from being in new places. I have found that the journey itself can often be much more meaningful than just a means to a destination, wherever that may be.


Over time, I began to notice that the moments of insight, stretches of sustained thought, and feelings of freedom on plane journeys often seemed deeper and richer than those occurring on land. There was a stillness and peace above the clouds that enabled me to connect more fully with my inner self, encouraged by the endless horizon just outside and the limitless potential it suggested. I came to know all forms of clouds, like people, none exactly alike, and many nuances of blue, gray, and white in the endlessly changing sky. 


I had often tried to photograph these views in an attempt to capture my sense of the experience. But like most people who try to record those special moments, upon later viewing the images I was disappointed by visual results that at best conveyed only a hint of the endless views that had so moved me.


Above the Clouds began nearly ten years ago when, after a career in a very different sort of life, I found my way back to photography. I had been motivated by an earlier commitment to myself to change paths by a certain point and see where life's journey would lead. It was a return to a way of perceiving the world I had been immersed in during my early teens and into my late twenties, but set aside as life intervened in wonderful ways. Having rediscovered my need for visual expression, I began to consider how I could more fully convey my many memorable moments above the clouds. Those experiences had always contained a density and complexity of feeling despite being on the surface merely a trip between two places. And the question remained: Can you capture flight and the precise moments during it that are so inspirational?


My answer has been forged over many attempts, not all successful. With a range of equipment, adjustments, and hundreds of proofs, I have worked to eliminate the effect of multiple layers of coated glass, reflections, speed and the plane's curved body, which further distorts window shape. What appears in these pages is what the mind and eye see-distilled to the elemental features of clouds, sky, light, and the land below.


I hope that in these pages you recognize and feel a sense of familiarity with these shared views and voyages. There is much in common for all of us here: that glimpse of familiar cities, a limitless horizon, the search for home, a feeling of optimism or regret, or maybe a consideration of life's experiences. I want to revive memories from that deeply personal space that can occur on a plane. By looking out into the sky and over the world below, my hope is that these images may take you back to your own reflections from journeys on planes and along life's paths.


I have always found a sense of magic in travel. Anticipation, a feeling of liberation, and boundless promise arise when journeying into the unfamiliar, making us acutely conscious of ourselves. But with travel above the clouds, there is something unique: we surrender control and immerse ourselves in the journey and the moment. The stress of departure and the familiar are left behind. Pending decisions, challenges, jobs, and much else, all seem to recede. Despite the plane's speed, time seems to slow and lose its bounds as our views through the windows become boundless. And within those rarefied moments and that space above the clouds, we can often find our way back into an inner world that is otherwise difficult to access. Looking out can therefore allow us again to look within. Of course, not every journey leads to this. But when we do find ourselves in these special moments, we can attain that rare feeling of peace, tranquility, and sanctuary, and at times an epiphany of sorts.


Picasso is said to have observed, "Every child is born an artist. The challenge is for the child to remain an artist as they grow up."  What I believe Picasso meant was that the innocence of childhood, the connections to our inner thoughts, and the embrace of the range of our pure unguarded emotions-from vulnerability to playfulness-can be lost in adulthood with its inevitable but often welcome and fulfilling responsibilities. Once we are above the clouds, however, we can lose ourselves and limitations to thought seem to fall away. The sense of motion and progress, the changing canvas of clouds, landscape, and light, break down external and internal barriers . The oval windows, with no limiting corners or "ending", draw us once again towards an unfiltered horizon of nearly infinite possibilities. 


Our challenge is to retain this enhanced sense of perception and positive state of mind by remaining above the clouds in our approach to life after we have left the plane and resumed our day-to-day routine. Physical journeys are discrete and defined. Each comes to an end. But being "above the clouds," that enhanced state of awareness and clarity, will always be there, for all of us, whenever it is allowed to be-in the air or long after we arrive.


I hope I have been able to convey my own experiences and feelings and that they have resonated with some of yours. As part of this, I'd like to share a few thoughts about how these photographs were created and the challenges in transforming them from what I first saw into the images that await you in these pages.


All these photographs were taken during regularly scheduled commercial flights over the past seven years or so.  I knew, of course, the time of departure, my destination, and what I needed to do on arrival.  But with respect to my photography, I wanted to be open to chance encounter and the "found moment," to randomness, to chance. This approach seemed more authentic, more like the way one experiences life as it unfolds. For this reason, I was reluctant to take my eyes off the plane window for reading, work, sleep, or films, out of concern that I would miss a very special and fleeting moment.


Often, unusual and very unexpected images, including many in this book, might occur minutes after takeoff or just before landing. They were easy to miss after takeoff as thoughts shifted to in-flight activities and destination and later, nearing arrival, the location of passports, devices, and the like. But despite my attention to what lay out the window, the photographs I had visualized remained elusive. Memorable images were rare, frustrated by effects of the plane's speed or by weather, or perhaps an unpredictable change in flight path. It was hard to capture the seamless and evocative representation of clouds, light, and horizon as I held them in my mind's eye, undermining my hopes of creating images that truly inspired.


But over time I researched, discussed, and learned what seasons and which routes would offer the best opportunities to experience and create photographs that more fully reflected the inner journey. Analyzing flight paths, the angle of the sun, the curvature of the earth, and times of sunrise and sunset, among other factors, helped increase the likelihood that I would be able to capture compelling images. To the extent possible, I planned my flights around these calculations and probabilities. However, as we all know, increased probabilities do not always mean success.


There were other challenges. The speed of flight, the curvature of windows, their layers of too-often reflective glass, and the filters within that glass which lent a brown/yellow tint to many of my pictures, were visual and technical problems I needed to solve. All these reduced the chance that the images themselves might transport anyone's mind and emotions as they had my own. I might add an additional challenge: to take photos out the window, one needs a window seat. I was not always lucky.  I had to be very persuasive at times to convince fellow passengers I was undertaking a vital experiment on the technical side of a spiritual art. Sometimes, of course, all my persuasion did not work - so I would glance across at the window, with a sense of loss, the images not taken.


Blurring and unintended soft images were chronic difficulties. In order to attain the sharpest resolution possible, given the plane's velocity, I had to find the right balance between shutter speed, lens aperture, and camera light sensitivity or ISO.  Planning and specific ideas were greatly complicated by the second-to-second changes in ambient light and the speed and altitude of the plane, which required anticipation and juggling of multiple variables from one image to the next. More than once a seemingly perfect moment eluded me. Over time, I came to know clouds and light and the seemingly infinite subtleties of blue, grey and white as well as many atmospheric conditions. Eventually, as we do through life's experiences, I developed an intuitive sense of what might come next as the journey, clouds and sky evolved, second by second.  


Whenever possible, I tried to capture an image at the highest shutter speed that circumstances would permit, without impairing quality by choice of aperture or pushing ISO too high. Distortions and reflections were even harder to eliminate, especially since so many of the photographs had to be taken into direct sunlight. Balancing and normalizing the colors of clouds, light, and sky to convey their beauty and the feelings they evoked was no less challenging. I spent a year or two exploring these many variables before I found the most effective solutions to create images that would take us as near as possible to actually being there above the clouds, looking outside and within. Those truly memorable images that can transport us are rare and to be cherished, and I hope you will find them here. 


My ongoing journey above the clouds, one I have continued to welcome and embrace, has brought me closer to answers and posed new questions. It has often taken me back to key moments and inflection points in life, given me a sense of how to proceed in the present, and brought unexpected visions, objectives, and solutions for the future.


These tranquil moments have also helped bring closure to and acceptance of some of life's more difficult experiences and losses, ones we all inevitably must face in our own ways. These moments have also brought deep and spontaneous joy as I have contemplated the miracle of our individual and collective time on this earth and the shared experiences of close family and true friends. In reflecting on our complex lives and world, especially from above the clouds, it seems to me that what keeps us apart is far less significant than all the things that should bring us together.


As you read these words and experience these photographs, allowing your thoughts to wander, you will have begun or possibly even resumed your own journey above the clouds.  I hope this book transports you into that contemplative state in which time itself seems to slow and brings you closer to your own answers and insights. I have come to find that above the clouds, while looking out the window and into oneself, these answers and insights, and a clearer view of past, present, and future, may well await you. 


Scott Mead

Essay from 'Above the Clouds', published 2017