The naked eye: John Crawford's bizarre photography project finally sees the light of day

There's naked ambition in the bird’s-eye views Crawford provides of New Zealand.

The 1980s is a foreign country. It was a time when advertising agencies thought nothing of blowing millions on exotic shoots to sell cigarettes or chocolates. Hot-air balloons, stunt artists – money was no object, all because the lady loves Milk Tray.

John Crawford is a New Zealand-based photographer who did a lot of commercial work back then. He spent much of his time in helicopters and light aeroplanes, and became fascinated with looking at the world from a bird's eye perspective. In 1984, between shoots, he had an idea for a personal project called Aerial Nudes, the results of which you see here.

The idea is simple, if bizarre: a real-life nude woman in an outdoor setting. The execution, as you can imagine, was rather more complicated. For though today we might assume these images were knocked up in the digital re-mastering suite, in fact they were all taken on 35mm colour film, exactly as you see them.

The project lasted for three years, from 1984 to 1987, when Crawford dedicated his spare time to meticulously planning and executing each shot, dreaming up ever more surreal scenarios. "Part of the thrill was coming up with the ideas, which in some cases were seemingly impossible, and making it work," he says. "I'd hire a small fixed-wing aircraft for an hour and hunt for abstract details in the landscape where I could strategically place a nude. I would shoot reference images of each location, which I would print. On these, with a black ink pen I would sketch little stick figures and add the various props I would need."

Through his commercial work, Crawford had built a network of contacts he was able to call on. Or, as he puts it, "I did a series of contras with mates." So a friend who hired out helicopters at $1,200 per hour would give him mate's rates. Another, a train driver, enabled him to set up the extraordinary image in which a body lies naked on the tracks in front of a stopped goods train (opposite). The model in all of them is his ex-wife, Carina, who was "very happy" to take part, and whom he describes as still a close friend.

Thanks to the meticulous planning, actually taking the picture would take only about 10 minutes, though the weather conditions had to be just right: "It had to k be a flat, overcast day, because bright sunlight would create a dimension with shadows that was quite distracting, and there had to be not too much wind, because you had to hover dead vertically."

The question, perhaps, is why? Clearly these photographs were fun to take, and just as funny to look at, but what was Crawford trying to show? "I like to look at things from a different perspective. From a bird's eye perspective, everything is different, because most people don't get much opportunity to fly around looking straight down. But they are also a statement: the fact that humans are so tiny and insignificant, compared to the size of the land we live on. We're just minuscule parts of a huge universe."

All the shots were taken in and around Taranaki, on the west coast of the north island of New Zealand, where Crawford still lives. His father, a neurosurgeon, wanted him be a doctor, but he was determined to be a photographer. "It started as a hobby. At school, the only subjects I was good at were English, so I could speak properly, and art, so I understood graphics and abstracts and shapes and patterns. Combining them in photography is a real bonus."

He joined a photographic company in New Plymouth in the Taranaki region and, now 61, is an honorary fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography and continues to work as a photographer. The images of the Aerial Nudes project are more than 25 years old, but are only now enjoying a wider audience, after Crawford posted them on his website. Why did he hold them back for so long? "Because they were pretty personal photographs," he says. "I knew they were good, but when you get so close to a project, until you stand back and look at it later on, you don't realise the significance of it. I just kept them in a box."

Crawford has been overwhelmed by the response Aerial Nudes has had since appearing on the internet. He now plans to return to the project, and already has his next shot planned: a picture of his 27-year-old daughter Amelia, lying on a Boeing 747. Crawford admits to being a fan of the iPhone, though he'll take it the old-fashioned way: hanging out of a helicopter with a Nikon F3. Perhaps the 1980s are not as far away as we thought.

For more of Crawford's shots: