Steven Manolakis: Ethereal aerial abstract photography

The aerial photographs of Steven Manolakis record remote landscapes and capture compositional moments of seamless ethereal abstractions

Steven Manolakis is an American photographer who experiences the world from a unique optical perspective. His aerial photographs, taken with a medium format camera, record remote landscapes and capture the compositional moments of seamless abstraction that appear ethereal. His artwork aims to prove that there is meaning to existence and raises questions as to whether we create the meaning, or if it pre-exists but we distinguish and label it.

Steven Manolakis is an active artist and simultaneously, a student in philosophy at Sydney’s Macquarie University in Australia. Only recently he has begun his artistic journey and has countless global laudations including numerous awards, honorable mentions, and shortlisting for his landscape photography.

An inspirational individual and role model for young artists, Manolakis gives us insight into his practice, techniques, and methods in his interview for the Agora Gallery’s Collectors Corner.

How did you get into aerial photography? What drew you to that perspective?

I discovered aerial photography after stumbling upon Brooke Holm’s aerial work examining the Australian landscape. At first glance, her work resembled abstract paintings. I was so intrigued by the composition that I decided to give aerial photography a try. My first flight was taken over Shark Bay, Western Australia in 2018. This is when I captured my photos The Shimmer and Physis. I enjoyed the art form so much that I no longer shoot any other type of photography.

The Shimmer, Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310gsm, 30″ x 45″

How remote or accessible are your selected locations?

Some locations are very remote. For example, when I shot Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in South Australia earlier this year, I drove nine hours north of Adelaide to William Creek, a small town with a permanent population of 10. It feels special to be out there with so few people like you’re an explorer commissioned to document a new frontier.

Do you conduct research on an area before hopping on a plane?

Normally, I’ll review satellite imagery and aerial photos of other photographers. The next step is having a conversation with the air charter service about my flight plan. This will give me an idea of what I can expect from the landscape before I take off.

What is the first thing that catches your eye? Color, composition, or texture?

Composition. From above, the Australian landscape can be very abstract and inchoate. There is plenty of color, texture, and patterns, but almost no sense or order to it. So my work is to absorb the topography and scan the ground for figures that possess form and symmetry. In other words, I look for something about the physical arrangement of the land that stands out to me. I usually refer to this as a process of semantics: finding something meaningful.

Neuron, Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310gsm, 50″ x 75″

Do you have time to think about these while on the plane? Or do you work instinctively and study/finetune the results after?

When I’m flying above a landscape, I’m perpetually scanning the ground below and using my imagination to envisage good composition. Sometimes I’m fortunate to capture an image that checks all my boxes on the first attempt. But typically I’m asking the pilot to make 2-5 orbits around a particular geographic feature until I get the shot I want. If I am not happy with the results or think I can do better, I’ll ask the pilot to fly over the same area the next day until I’m satisfied. However, there is always a modicum of anxiety around the whole process as I never really know whether I’ll connect with the landscape and capture something I’m happy with.

What challenges do you face before, during, and after an aerial shoot?

Believe it or not, airsickness. I’m almost always fighting nausea when I’m looking down the lens. The environments I shoot are austere and often blistering hot during the day, so my hydration is important as it can predispose me to motion sickness. It takes a lot of energy to stay focused on the work, especially when I’ve been in the air for two hours.

What time of the day do you prefer to work?

In the mornings, when the light is soft and the landscape isn’t washed out by the midday sun. I avoid flying in the afternoon because the air can become very turbulent after convecting heat during the day.

You currently reside in Australia due to your studies, are you interested in expanding your landscape portfolio outside of this terrain? If so, have you thought of where you would like to photograph next?

I’ve photographed Iceland from the air in the autumn of 2018. It was only my second aerial expedition, the first taking place earlier the same year in Australia. Although Iceland was a beautiful landscape, I never felt connected to my work. It isn’t even displayed or acknowledged on my website. My focus is exclusively on photographing the Australian landscape from the air. I think this is because I’ve fallen in love with Australia and its diverse environment. Even now, I feel I have so much work left to do in Australia.

How do you critique your own work? How are you selective about the photographs you publish?

When it comes to my aerial photography, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, and it ostensibly works for me. However, perfectionism appears to be antithetical to the work ethic of contemporary artists. I think this is because artists believe the pursuit of excellence can be creatively stifling. And for some it is. But my field is extremely competitive, so I think it’s helpful to bring the best you have. Also, I want to feel like my work is getting better–that each new project stands up to the former. My image selection process is very strict, but it really isn’t about pleasing others. All my standards are self-imposed. I just won’t display an image I’m not 100% on board with. In the end, this means about 99% of my photos taken during an aerial expedition won’t pass the selection threshold.

What are you first powered by? Emotions, thoughts, or the raw landscape?

I think it’s an amalgam of emotional longing, philosophical interest, and my appreciation of the Australian landscape when viewed from above. Most of my work has been inspired by a girl I met and fell in love with a few years ago. She was visiting from Germany. We became friends while she was in Australia, and kept in touch for a while after she left. But she didn’t feel the same way I did about her, and eventually, we lost touch. I think my work expresses the longing I felt for her, and admittedly still feel, even after the passage of time. Philosophically, I’m particularly curious about how complex systems interact with each other and create meaningful connections. When viewing a landscape from a meta-level perspective, I’m attempting to transform the chaos of nature into something beautiful, simplified, and cohesive. And all this is mediated by my love of the Australian landscape; its azure shorelines and deep red center.

In your many years of experience do you have a specific location you would revisit or label as your favorite?

I’m very fond of Western Australia. To me, it feels like the last frontier. Most of the state is uninhabited, which can make it a great place to withdraw from my academic life and tap into my artistic vein. But my favorite thing about it has to be the abundant supply of red soil. Every time I visit I bring a jar of dirt back with me. Sydney doesn’t have soil like that.

Do you have a favorite work? If so, which one?

At the moment my favorite image is Neuron. It was taken in Broome, Western Australia, in 2021. I think the waterway framed in the center has strong composition and is extraordinarily detailed. When printed, parts of it can appear textured and raised from the paper, as if you were looking at a 3-dimensional landscape.

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Steven Manolakis’ works are on view at Agora Gallery from November 29 through December 22. Learn more about the artist by visiting his Agora page.

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