At long last, after what Craig Wilson calls "almost 20 years of farting around," the kite photographer has a book of his images in print. Hanging by a Thread: A Kite's View of Wisconsin "sort of validates all that farting around," he adds.
And how. Self-deprecation aside, Wilson has a book to be proud of. Published by Itchy Cat Press, the Blue Mounds imprint of Flying Fish Graphics, Hanging by a Thread includes 140 color plates on 132 pages. The retail price is $23. More than one-third of the images focus on Madison, bringing new perspectives to familiar settings.
"It's a different view of the world," Wilson says. "More of a view that birds and bugs have." He also uses the term God's-eye view, a kind of intimate omniscience that might be exercised by an all-seeing deity with sharp vision.
There are countless thousands of people in this book. Thousands alone in an image of a Concerts on the Square audience, thousands more in attendance at Opera in the Park and at the Madison Blues Festival, yet more thousands in the student section at Camp Randall Stadium - all viewed from above by Wilson's kite-borne camera.
Wilson himself appears in 10 of the photos. "There's a little game played throughout this book, of finding me," he notes. To play, all you have to do is follow the white line that appears in some images - the string connecting Wilson to the kite that flies his camera.
I find myself on page 57, a tiny red figure in a photo Wilson took the winter before last on a bright day when I was shoveling WELCOME TO MADISON in enormous letters out on the snow-covered Lake Monona ice. I've admired Wilson's kite aerial photographs for many years, and one of his spectacular iceboat photos hangs in the library at home.
"My sister-in-law referred to this book as a loving look at Wisconsin," Wilson says. "This represents my heart and soul."
Where satellite images are static, remote and gridlike in composition, Wilson's kite cam affords a more human-scale acuity, full of color and life and artistic intent that is beyond the ability of even low-flying surveillance craft.
This is a key distinction. "What has always intrigued me about this medium of using a kite is the intimacy, not just with the landscape but with people," he explains.
Wilson's favorite image in the book is titled "Kokopellis," referencing the iconic Anasazi flute-playing trickster. It shows the UW Marching Band at practice. Lit by a low sun, each band member casts a long, Kokopelliesque shadow on a grass surface rendered tartan in pattern due to all the marching.
This is the kind of revelation found throughout the book. Where earthbound photographs tend to emphasize the sky above the horizon, Wilson's backdrops tend toward the terrestrial - expanses of grass, pavement, crop fields, water, ice, snow, sand, dirt and gravel as context for his subjects.
Not even Wilson gets to view his images as he is composing them. Only when he reels in his kite does he enjoy the privilege of seeing what's in the camera.
He has been doing this for long enough now that he has internalized a command of geometry, aperture and exposure. This affords him confidence when framing an image from afar. Even so, he says, seeing the results can be quite a thrill.
"Usually, I kind of visualize what I'm trying to do," Wilson says. "It's not some random shooting around and hope for the best." Unable to look through the camera, he adds, "it's not like shooting what you're seeing. It's shooting what you're thinking."
Wilson figured out how to take kite aerial photographs all on his own, cobbling together the remote-control mechanism through trial and error. "I've never even had a photo class," he says. By taking this approach, he observes, "I had the freedom to not have to answer to anyone."