Changing Perspectives – Flathead Beacon
Sunset was approaching on a Friday in downtown Whitefish. A year-round tourist destination with a ballooning population, Whitefish is the de facto party hub of northwest Montana. Normally, one would expect to have to look for a parking space the day before the weekend. But that day, not a single après-ski reveler hit the sidewalks of Central Avenue. The streets, hopelessly empty, were more reminiscent of the opening scene of a zombie apocalypse movie.
Hours earlier, the local health department announced the detection of its first-ever cases of COVID-19 in Flathead County. The live feed from my drone’s camera confirmed not only the peculiar sight of a large parking lot all over downtown, but the arrival of silence; the same calm that had already metastasized to cities around the world had finally infected the relative remoteness of the Flathead Valley.
Such a startling cessation of everyday life deserved more than a few photographs – especially from the right vantage point.
Aerial imagery is a powerful tool in the modern photojournalist’s storytelling kit, and the documentation-oriented photographer is always on the lookout for a new angle. Few tools refresh things visually like a camera in the sky. Sights once reserved for birds and, much later, a minority of humans with the means and skills to travel in complex aircraft, are now accessible to the layman with a little practice and training.
Pandemic traffic patterns aside, I’ve found drones to be a particularly effective instrument for affirming the magnitude of Montana’s natural landscapes — and humanity’s relentless transformations.
A flight over the edge of Kalispell on a clear September day revealed a fence-post-wide contrast between what was and what will be. On one side, the over-fertilized grass glowed an unusual shade of green in a new suburb, while on the other, the stubble of a harvested canola field was decaying a shade of mouse-brown. Precious dark stands of centuries-old conifers, untouched by the ax of industry, lined agricultural fields and residential sprawl in a few places.
Another flyby in nearby Somers at around 100ft high filled the frame with the hulls of thousands of rusting outdated cars in a junkyard. Tilting the camera up revealed the brilliant blue expanse of Flathead Lake, among the cleanest natural bodies of water in the world, just across from the auto graveyard. The lake is so large, even from an elevated drone vantage point, that the gravelly southern shore is obscured by the curvature of the Earth.
Despite all their wonderful capabilities, I have mixed feelings about drones. Whether it’s the proliferation of automobiles, guns, nuclear power, social media, or miniature quadcopters, every new technology has its dark side.
Drones, by their nature, can be invasive. A mentally restorative excursion into the woods in the 21st century could be disrupted by the whine of propellers at low altitude. Government agencies, private businesses and nosy neighbors can use them to scan, monitor and record with unprecedented ease. Between smartphones in our pockets, robotic eyes in the sky, and the internet that connects them all, privacy and mystery in the traditional sense are behind us.
But hopefully refinement and thoughtful use of drones can help offset their negative side effects. Regulations for small unmanned aircraft continue to evolve and require commercially certified drone pilots, like myself, to keep abreast of sprawling lists of rules from federal aviation administrations, while states and localities issue sometimes their own conflicting orders.
Most of the regulations make sense and improve safety and help facilitate coexistence, such as not flying near airports or over crowded stadiums. Other regulations seem more arbitrary, such as drones used for recreational purposes weighing less than 0.55 pounds do not need to be registered, while the same commercial license certifies pilots flying all drones weighing up to at 55 pounds up to flight speeds of 100 mph.
A year after the fateful arrival of the coronavirus in Flathead Valley, I returned to downtown Whitefish with my eye in the sky, taking off from the same stretch of sidewalk I had done precisely 365 days earlier, almost at time. I framed the blocks of the central business district of Whitefish exactly as I had done before. The scene in the live stream was quite different. Only a handful of parking spaces remained, despite the fact that as of March 20, 2021, Flathead County had officially recorded approximately 11,300 COVID-19 infections. The juxtaposition of this image with its year-old counterpart was a particularly rewarding example of long-lasting documentation for this previously ground-bound photojournalist. Clearly, society’s perspective had changed, as had mine. The illuminating power of photography, whether from the ground or the sky, is invaluable in the long run.