For most of us, airplanes are simply a means to an end. But to some people – like Manolo Chrétien – planes are much more than giant metal tubes full of smelly passengers and cramped seats. The French photographer's new "Nose Art" exhibition is designed to give people a head-on look at a wide range of aircraft, from hulking warplanes to the ill-fated Concorde.
Although it may seem like an odd subject matter to those not fascinated with aircraft, the man behind the exhibition – which will be on display starting this month at the Mechanical Art Devices Gallery in Geneva – says his fascination has been brewing since youth. Son of the first French astronaut, Chrétien grew up next to the Orange Air Force Base, and was a steadfast visitor to hangars full of prototype jets. Having briefly studied aeronautical engineering, he ended up pursuing a career in graphic design, while indulging his passion for photography on the side.
"My inspiration for Nose Art came suddenly while on a photo trip in the Tucson desert in 2008," says Chrétien. "I was photographing all sorts of planes when I had a flashback of my brothers and I when we were very young in the garden of our house in Orange, France – right next to the runway, where we were fascinated by the planes taking off."
Most of the shots featured in the Nose Art gallery were shot on a Canon 5D R or Hasselblad H4D-60. Given the height of most planes, getting a direct front-on perspective wasn't easy, forcing Chrétien to use a tall tripod and forklift for a face-to-face look.
According to Chrétien, each plane has a different story to tell, with rust and dents accrued over years of hard service providing a window into its soul. The Star of Switzerland, which was one of the first TWA Constellations converted for civilian work, is peppered with dents picked up in a torrential hailstorm. This, according to the gallery hosting the exhibition, left the aircraft with "tremendous character and a visual chronicle of its history."
Along with the TWA Constellation, the exhibition includes images of the Concorde, a Rafale fighter jet and an old Learjet. Each has lived a very different life, something Chrétien has tried to capture in his images.
"Growing up I saw the tarmac, kerosene, and aluminium through the eyes of a small child; I was overwhelmed by the size of these huge metal birds flying over me," Chrétien says. "I photograph from this viewpoint today, sometimes by lying on the ground to recreate a child-like sense of scale. Since my very first photographs I've been fascinated with the textures and colours of used metals, revealing the past and the story of these materials. So scale, colours, and surface textures are very important."
If you can't hop a plane to catch the Geneva show, you can have a look through some of the images now in the gallery above.