That kind of serendipity has led to some fascinating photographs for the artist, who has about 40 pieces on display at Misericordia University’s Pauly Friedman Gallery through June 2.
Titled “Pennsylvania From Above,” the exhibit shows aerial views of everything from marshland to abandoned bituminous coal fields, and Stern sees beauty in all of it.
One of his photos, for example, shows a site near Hazleton that “looks like a vast wasteland of coal-mine detritus. It’s just miles of churned-up earth and strip mines and areas where forests are barely growing in coal remnants. It can appear extremely bleak and unappealing, but in the photograph, which I took from about 300 feet above the ground, in the golden misty light I saw incredible patterns and shapes that were made by earth-moving machinery.
“I think there are messages from nature that come through even in these areas that have been altered,” he said.
Explaining how he feels “a sense of reverence for the landscape I’m flying over,” Stern said, “It’s a spiritual connection with the natural world that I look for.”
That can lead to a connection with other people as well.
On a wintry day when he happened to get out of work early — there’s that serendipity again — Stern took advantage of the daylight by “rushing to the airport” and, almost as an afterthought, grabbing his camera. He was glad he did, because that day he shot an image of Maryland’s Prettyboy Island, covered with snow and delicate trees.
“A friend asked for a copy to give to another friend, and on the day (the eventual recipient) opened the package, it was the day her mother had died. She said it gave her a strong sense of calm and serenity at that moment,” Stern said. “I feel if I can make that kind of connection with someone or touch them emotionally that’s one of the strongest things I could hope for.”
In case you’re wondering how Stern manages to fly and shoot photos at the same time, he explained, “Your feet are on the rudders and at least one hand is on the control stick. You need to make throttle adjustments, but you can divide your time between the camera and that.”
Autopilot can help, as does a “special bracket for the camera, which allows me to fly in the left seat of my plane and shoot with my left hand.”
Stern, 51, lives in Baltimore and commutes to Washington, D.C., for his “day job” as an exhibit specialist at the National Air and Space Museum. His airplane often takes him to Pennsylvania and, in fact, all but three of the images in the Misericordia exhibit are from the Keystone State.
“Pennsylvania is a state that houses a lot of natural beauty but has been exploited for its natural resources, whether steel or coal and now natural gas,” he said. “I feel an affinity for this place, a place of beauty that has been transfigured.”
“I’m very much a purist about photography,” he continued. “I don’t crop any of my photographs. I don’t use any color enhancements. I use the light and time of year and my own ability to create the most compelling photographs I can. That’s the challenge of it, a certain dedication to honestly convey what I’m seeing.
“I want to pay tribute to this land.”