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Aerial and location portrait photographer Cameron Davidson calls Northern Virginia home, but captures images from the skies around the globe for Vanity Fair, National Geographic, Preservation, Audubon and Smithsonian magazines. His work has garnered awards including a recent display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and his location portraits have been featured in USA Today and Air & Space as well as in corporate campaigns and annual reports. An avid volunteer and board member for the Community Coalition for Haiti, Cameron documents CCH aid projects in central and southern Haiti. Inspired by a love of flight and aerial views, Cameron recently completed a 20-year book project celebrating the beauty and fragility of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed; select images were the focus of recent issues of both Washington Post Magazine and Garden & Gun.

10.18.11

Get Dirty, Enjoy Life and Give It Everything You Have

If you have a degree in what field is it? I attended the Corcoran School of Art but did not graduate. I also took classes at a local community college. I assisted several advertising photographers and learned from them what not to do and I learned what to do by following the guidance of several photographers whom I admired and respected.

What was your strangest assignment? When I was just starting out, an art director at a DC agency, who knew me when I was an assistant, asked me to photograph the recently deceased owner of the agency as he lay in his casket. He was helping me get on my feet, but it was pretty weird.

Which photographer would you like to meet? Josef Hoflehner is an Austrian landscape photographer and I enjoy his desolate landscapes. I think we would have an interesting conversation.

What famous person (living or dead) would you most like to photograph? Blues guitarist Michael Burks. Not only is he interesting looking person but he has the most amazing tone and vibrato. He plays a Gibson Flying V and sounds like a mix between Albert King and Michael Schenker.

Aside from your camera and lighting, what item could you not work without? My Kenyon Gyroscopes for stabilization of the cameras and a Hughes 500 helicopter to get me into the right position.

Is there anything you would not digitally retouch? I would never retouch a natural disaster or journalism assignment. Never. Most of my work is pretty straightforward; I try to bring the sky and tones together as I saw them in my mind but not much more than that is needed.

From where do your best ideas originate? When I get quiet (although also sometimes when I’m busy). I carry notepads with me and ideas often come in a flurry one after another; ideas tend to pile up all at once so I have to write them down or I lose them forever. Action leads to getting them done.

How do you overcome a creative block? By stepping back and giving myself a break. I tend to go at things full steam with a lot of energy and by taking a break I allow myself to recover from long shoots. Usually two or three days of rest does the trick for me. The pro bono project that I started shooting in Central Haiti in 1999, that continues to this day, centers me pretty quick—I have no problems in my life when I return from Haiti.

Do you have creative pursuits other than photography? Playing my guitars—electric and acoustic. I’ve played guitar on-and-off since I was a teenager. It’s a wonderful way to relax and remove the stress from the day. Also getting on my bike for a good long ride recharges me. Not really creative, but it frees my mind so I can be in the moment and allow ideas to come forward.

What music are you listening to right now? “Jacob’s Dream” by Alison Krauss and “Never Got Off The Ground” by Alison Krauss and Union Station. In my truck this morning, I was listening to a recently recorded bootleg of the Ronnie James Dio tribute by Heaven and Hell at an English music festival. I have fairly eclectic tastes in music; my music library runs the gamut from classical guitar and bluegrass to electric blues and hard rock plus traditional Korean folk tunes.

What’s your approach to balancing work and life? Reading is my great release and when I am flying commercial, I usually settle into one of several books that I carry with me. Currently I’m reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad by Gordon Thomas. Reading helps me balance out and the quiet time helps me think clearly. A good hour with an interesting book and life seems pretty good. I love being able to focus on what is in front of me.

What’s your favorite quote? “Experience is the child of thought, and thought is the child of action.” —Benjamin Disraeli

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? To not blindly follow the advice of the Internet photo god gurus. You have to listen to your own voice and figure out what is important to you... There is a lot of misinformation on the Web and although most of it is well meaning, a lot of it is contradictory. Finding one or two people who are successful and who you admire as mentors will get you further along than copying someone who is well known for their blog or trying to emulate someone's success. This is a hard profession and by staying true to yourself you have more of a chance to rise. Read, explore, travel as much as possible, assist good people, work your tail off, don’t be afraid of getting dirty, enjoy life and give it everything you have.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I’d known what I wanted to do with my life. I would have benefited greatly from understanding the opportunities presented to me. Understanding business and finance would also have been a great asset.