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Vermont Quarterly

Crowded Skies

Mike Kelly photo of multiples planes in the air
Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, Polder Runway


Crowded Skies

Mike Kelley’s fascination with flight runs deep. Growing up near Boston, his father would take him to Logan International to watch the endless parade of planes landing and taking off. At home, model airplanes were scattered about his boyhood bedroom. When Kelley, a Class of 2009 alumnus, took design classes at UVM, his projects tended to have an aviation angle, such as creating the color scheme for a fuselage or cabin interior.  “I’m a kid who never grew out of that loving airplanes phase,” he says.

Kelley isn’t a pilot, though, he’s a photographer. Via that creative medium he has explored his love of aviation with a series of composite photographs that assemble multiple images of planes arriving or departing from a particular airport runway into one single image. The visually startling results were aptly dubbed “airplane armadas” by

What began with taking photos while plane-spotting at Los Angeles International Airport, a short drive from his home, turned into a project when Kelley made his first multiple image and watched it go viral on the internet. He says he “didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder” and saw the potential of taking the same approach with photographs in the varied landscapes of airports worldwide. In 2015 and 2016, he and his girlfriend flew roughly 130,000 miles to airports all around the world—Dubai to Brazil to Switzerland—wrangling the access he needed to get the shots he wanted, then painstakingly creating more images.

The flight-loving photographer found his career direction thanks, in part, to the harsh realities of gravity. After graduating from UVM with his degree in environmental studies and studio art, Kelley decided to head to Lake Tahoe with dreams of becoming a professional snowboarder. A relatively cheap apartment, a job at a ski area helping newbie skiers get into their boots, and lots of time to board, Kelley was living that dream. But repeated injuries, culminating in a torn ACL that he reinjured on his first day back on snow, made him decide he was done with the sport, done with the snow piled high outside his window in the Sierras. Within a week of that second ACL tear, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles.

Fortunately, Kelley had already begun to explore his “what’s next?” during his years in Tahoe. Photography evolved from hobby to profession when he was hired to shoot pictures of properties for a real estate agency. He found he had a knack for the particular challenges of architectural photography, then dove deep into learning and gaining experience. Kelley’s client list ranges from Vail Resorts to Tesla Motors to, not surprisingly, Delta Airlines.

These days, Kelley balances building his architecture-focused commercial photography business with putting finishing touches on the airplane project, titled “Wake Turbulence.” Hoping to still add a couple of international airports to the mix, Kelley is currently editing the work into book format, anticipating publication within the year.

The photographer says reactions to his “Wake Turbulence” images vary: “A lot of people are fascinated; a lot of people think it’s an image of what’s wrong with the world.” Noting that environmental advocacy groups have contacted him wanting to use the images to illustrate air or noise pollution, he adds, “It makes an invisible thing very visible. I think that’s why it resonates.”

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