Fine art photographer Ron Frazier had hit rock bottom with his inspiration. After photographing the Illinois landscape for many years, he felt his enthusiasm waning until, finally, he put down his camera.
But then an encounter with a whizzy new piece of technology changed everything, inspiring him to take his work to new heights and find a new perspective on familiar subject matter. Keeping his feet on the ground, Frazier let his camera soar high above on a drone. Combining an artist’s eye with the latest technology has resulting in a new exhibition at the Joe McCauley Gallery at Heartland Community College in Normal.
"Ronald Douglas Frazier: Illinois With Altitude" is currently on view through Feb. 15 and features a new angle on the quiet beauty of the prairie. It all started when Frazier’s friend Joe Norton purchased a state-of-the-art DJI Phantom drone. Norton’s wife challenged him to find a use for the drone and Frazier jumped in, excited at the new possibilities drone photography presented.
“Most drones have cameras attached. The Phantom is itself a camera,” Frazier explained. “Once I saw what that camera could do, I got chills.”
For a year, Frazier and Norton worked as a team, photographing from the sky above. When Norton moved away, Frazier continued on with the drone, experimenting and discovering a new way to reveal the dynamic Illinois landscape. And many times, Frazier said, people don’t even realize that they’re looking at a shot from the air.
“They’ll ask how I got the shot. It’s a revelation to them. Just because the drone goes a mile high, doesn’t mean you have to take pictures from a mile high. People often take the technology to the limit, then the look straight down. And that’s really not very interesting. All you need is a little altitude, a little elevation and a whole new world opens up.”
“I think with all art forms, any kind of new technology is going to adapted and used,” said Danell Dvorak, gallery coordinator for the Joe McCauley Gallery. “I think what’s interesting about this show is that you have a very old subject matter and a very familiar subject matter for those who live in central Illinois. And this really does give you a perspective that Ron is able to share through his vision as a photographer. So for him, the drone is basically a tripod in the sky.”
“Even in a brisk, high wind, the DGI drones won’t move,” said Frazier. “They are amazing technology. But they are like any camera. I go out at certain times of the day because the sunlight is better. I go out in the morning, late afternoon of evening. Try to shoot the prairie in the summer in the middle of the day and it’s just flat. You can’t get any definition.”
Frazier admits there was a learning curve with the new technology and that he worked for two years to assemble the material for the show. Very little post-production goes into the finished photos.
“With the drone, you can't zoom in, like you do on a camera. So, you take very large pictures and then I have to go in an decide what I want in the picture. I don’t frame the image in my camera lens. Sometimes I can get three different images out of one shot. It’s fun and a lot more creative, to see things you didn’t see otherwise. I’m actually looking at the drone image through an iPad.”
While Frazier captures rolling fields, hedge rows and dusty country roads in his photos, he also like to focus in on local landmarks, like the David Davis Mansion.
“There’s just so much texture to capture. That’s what I like about shooting the Illinois landscape—I'm really big into texture. And you get an endless amount of texture in Illinois.”
“Ron’s photography is really more akin to a painting or a drawing, other types of fine art,” offered Dvorak. “It really rises above what most people think of the landscape.”
Dvorak hopes the show will help people realize what a precious thing the Illinois landscape really is.
“I think this is a fine show with a sense of poignancy when you think about how, perhaps, in ten years will these landscapes exist? Will this be here anymore?”
"Illinois With Altitude" is up at the Joe McCauley Gallery through Feb. 15. The show is dedicated to his friend, Joe Norton, who got him started on drone photography. Frazier is planning to teach a community education class at Heartland in the spring to pass on his know-how of drone photography.
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