Paradise lost: Persia from above

Swiss photographer Georg Gerster undertook a dangerous mission to capture the beauty of Iran from the air on film, sticking his camera out a of a plane to do so

Pioneer in aerial photography Georg Gerster, who captured stunning images of 1970s Iran from the air, explains how he came to undertake such a perilous and rewarding photographic journey.

A gift such as this is received only once in a lifetime.

Flying on business over Iran, I had been struck by the thought that Persia’s natural and cultural landscape was predestined to be viewed from the air, with its salt deserts, gardens like slices of paradise, and waterless wind-sculpted wastelands. Its settlements are textbook examples of architecture without an architect, and the qanats, underground aqueducts, form graphic patterns. The idea of the bird’s eye view certainly wasn’t incongruous: the Homa, half eagle, half bird of paradise, is a mythical beast of Persian mythology, a harbinger of good fortune. On 12 October 1975 I delivered a letter by hand to the imperial court in Tehran, suggesting that I should produce a book, ‘Persia through the eyes of the Homa’.

The response from Tehran was encouraging: Empress Farah expressed a hope that the aerial views of her country would be enriching, both artistically and philosophically. The chief of her private cabinet suggested that the autumn of the coming year would be particularly suitable for taking aerial pictures. I felt that the promise was too vague, however, so I suggested that Empress Farah should appoint a coordinator to oversee the smooth running of the venture. For a while I heard nothing from Tehran. I felt a little uneasy about this silence. Had I lost a unique opportunity? Had I pushed my luck too far? To my great relief, towards the end of December 1975 I had better news: an Iranian acquaintance called me and invited me to come and speak with him. The next morning in Vienna, Dr Ali Asghar Azizi got straight to the point: ‘What kind of aeroplane do you want us to buy for you?’

Empress Farah had handed the project over to Iran Air, which was appropriate as the airline uses the mythical Homa as its logo. Dr Azizi, its chief public relations officer, was to be my contact. An aeroplane was not bought for me, but I was given unlimited access to a twin engined Britten-Norman BN 2 ‘Islander’ from the Imperial Aero Club. I undertook all flights with an expert on the region, German archaeologist Dr Dietrich Huff. He would take his seat at the front behind the two pilots, while my position was in the tail of the aircraft, next to a gaping hole where the cargo door normally would be.

My position for taking photographs, half sitting, half lying, couldn’t exactly be described as comfortable, but I had an almost clear field of view, with just a hazy marginal vortex caused by the hot exhaust from the engines. There was no sensible way of conversing with my archaeological guide in the cockpit, however – trying to shout over the noise of the engines through the open doorway was of little use. So the captain simply switched off the engines. Thankfully, the ‘Islander’, with its broad wings, glides to some extent. Nonetheless such conferences over the wilderness of the Iranian desert mountains filled me with terror. The captain was not unaware of this. He would, now and then, simply switch the engines on and off, just for a laugh.

Between 11 April 1976 and 30 May 1978, I made more than a hundred flights, completing 300 flying hours. Our planning took into consideration the change of the seasons, as far as was possible, which brought some wonderful discoveries: spring in the Azarbayjan highlands is one of the most beautiful spectacles this earth has to offer. We wanted to cover every part of the country, which almost overstretched the range and capabilities of our aircraft – it took several attempts to cross the Alborz mountains.

All my pilots were well-trained flyers, although I found one or two of them more inclined to buffoonery than was good for them. The young man who crucified me wantonly by switching off the engines was a particularly mischievous aviator. One time, for fun and simply to show off, he landed on the busy Tehran-Mashhad highway. He was also somewhat lacking in map reading skills: several times he flew us into the Soviet Union. This pilot was due to be questioned over his misdemeanours before an Iranian court martial, but before this could take place, he collided with another aircraft at an air show – a victim of his own fatal penchant for skylarking.

The upheavals in Iran put an end to my photographic flights, and the planned book had to wait thirty years.

'Paradise lost: Persia from above' is at the Wilmotte Gallery at Lichfield Studios in London from 7 April until 20 May 2011,