This strange picture of an airplane changed my life

no seriously

Photo by Josef Hoflehner - Jet Airliner #48 

Once upon a time I was a customer service representative for a large, direct auto insurance company. And almost 2 years ago to the day I was at work, getting yelled at by an elderly Floridian. I don’t remember the call or the person, but I'm sure they were a Florida retiree upset over a rate increase. I’m certain that this was the case because getting yelled at by angry retirees in Florida was my job. One evening 2 years ago, between threats from irate shuffleboard players, I was cruising when I came across the most intriguing picture. There were people on an impossibly bright beach, staring towards the sky in startled disbelief. Above them, a 200,000 lb 125 ft wide Boeing 757-200 passenger jet seemed to be hovering, frozen a few feet above their heads. As it turns out, the Caribbean island of St. Maarten is so small, the airport runway ends right at the beach. Planes land & take off right above the heads of beach goers. I clicked through to the photographer, Josef Hoflehner’s portfolio & was immediately stricken. Severe black & white landscapes. Stark cityscapes melting into hazy white skies. Black tones that appear to be blacker than anything I’ve ever seen. Photographs that despite being mostly empty, hit almost every classical composition. I was hooked.

I became obsessed. I looked at every single image on his website. Once. Twice. Again and again, over and over. I studied every detail. I even saw images in my dreams. Hoflehner’s work is well known, but there is almost no information about him or his technique online. I've only ever found a few brief interviews. Most photographers seemed to be aggressively self promoting. And yet, here was this guy, quietly creating some of the worlds best work. The enigmatic nature of his work only added to my fascination.

Over the next few months, I began to view the world differently. Driving to work every morning I would look out on to the city from the freeway & imagine how the scene would look in black & white. I started seeing shapes & lines, space & rhythm & framing it all in imaginary pictures. Eventually, I picked up my wife's Kodak EasyShare. I stumbled across a night photography group on Flickr dedicated to long exposures of urban landscapes. For months I wandered around the city at night. I hopped fences, slid down embankments, dodged traffic & crunched through broken glass. Just to catch the city as few have seen it. I spent my days driving around, scouting landscape opportunities. I would visit my in laws in rural Pennsylvania, roam around the woods, searching for scenic vistas & secret hideaways. I took my gear everywhere, in case I needed to pull over & take a shot.

I ignored the advice commonly offered to new photographers, that you should focus only on one type of photography, & master it. Instead, every few months another image would catch my eye. Like the photograph of the airplane, it would inspire & drive me to grow in a new creative direction.

Even though I now follow the work of dozens of photographers, I find that Hoflehner’s work is still my favorite. Looking at such lonely & mysterious landscapes often drives introspection. It seems like such an odd thing, to be so changed by a photograph. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had never seen it. Would another picture at another time have inspired me? Or maybe something else. Would I be writing this about my extreme spelunking company? Or maybe nothing. Perhaps I would still be on the phone, imploring Mrs. Manishewitz to please be civil & assuring her that we certainly do value her business.

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