Experiencing Donn Delson

Feature 015 • Jun 23rd 2024

Above image, Magic Carpet, Donn Delson

At 6 a.m., I sneak out of my house, desperately trying to close the front door quietly to avoid waking my family. Only four hours of sleep, but who cares? Today, I’m riding in a helicopter!

Xylophones, Donn Delson

Buzzing with anticipation, I pull out my phone and bring up my research on Donn Delson. Between parenting, the day job, and my failure at housework, all I had managed to do was look through press release photos with my son. We were intrigued. Delson’s images are beautiful and symmetrical, yet each has a unique touch, a ‘flaw’, that shows they’re real and alive. At 75, Delson began his aerial photography career after retiring from a highly successful career on the ground in music, movies, and marketing and I was keen to find out why.

Pinball, Donn Delson

Nervous and early, I find a café to pee and pay 5 quid for a cup of tea. At 7:30am on the dot, I walk into the heliport as if I do this every day, making polite small talk before stealing away to a window over the pad. I suppress the urge to glue my face and hands to the glass and scream, “helicopters!” Instead, I sit by the window, googling ‘types of helicopters’ to pretend I have any idea about the machine I’m about to entrust my life to.

As everyone arrives, excitement fills the room, like kids in a sweet shop. We’re gathered for a safety briefing and an overview of the day’s schedule: if it’s not tied down, it’s not coming in; don’t run around on the pad like an maniac; four 20-minute trips with groups already decided based on weight and fuel. I’m in group 4, meaning I have over an hour of watching others take off into the sky, dying with jealousy—not what I hoped for, but another opportunity to learn patience…I guess.

Time ticks by. I drink countless cups of tea and scribble garbled nonsense, or ‘notes’, on my phone. When the third group lands, I quickly put my many layers on, strap my phone to my wrist with a sturdy hairband, and prepare to take off. But of course, they need to refuel, ugghhhhhh! So I’m waiting again by the doors, eager to go.

The third group passes me, no longer happy and excited. I ask how it was, and a woman whose eyes hold fear tells me it was terrifying. Despite this, I don’t feel nervous—nothing could bring me down. Just take me up!

Cascade, Donn Delson

Finally, at 10:30 a.m., we are in the helicopter! In an AS355 Airbus, piloted by Tim, I sit next to Donn Delson one seat away from the one door. Donn! The man I’m here to observe, not obsess over helicopters. Earlier, I managed to grab a quick chat with him and in 5 minutes we touched on perspective, spirituality, serendipity, a life open to opportunity, and a world without boundaries. I couldn’t wait to see him in his element, to see the world from his preferred point of view.

One side of the helicopter is completely open. My phone hangs from my wrist by a hairband, the roar of the rotors loud and soothing in its wall of white noise. We take off! My heart soars without an ounce of fear. As we bank right, I can see straight down into the Thames through the open door, feeling pure joy and delight.

We head towards the Royal Albert Hall and turn again, shifting the helicopter onto its side. Tim looks back, asks, “Everyone feeling alright…?”
“Yes!!”. Tim and Don chuckle, “Phew, the last lot weren’t really enjoying it, but if you guys want more..!” and we spin above the Albert Memorial. The left window is just blue sky and the right is looking straight down at that golden statue I’ve stood in front of dozens of times since childhood is wild—a new perspective I never expected to see. Five fully grown adults, with an average age of 45, giddy and free like children. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no lists, no demands—just experiencing the moment.

The Crown Jewel, Donn Delson

I was born in Tooting in 1986 and am a proud Londoner, loving this city as much as I despise it. It’s the best city in the world, yet it’s grey, it’s dirty, it’s crowded. With piss-poor weather. Our transport doesn’t work, our old roads are broken and congested, our pollution is horrific, and you feel like you have to wipe black sludge off your face at the end of the day. To top it off, you need to be a millionaire to live here comfortably.

And yet, you catch this city in certain moments and see her in all her glory—the history, diversity, anarchy, independence, ingenuity, and sheer stubbornness. The bad choices and the good, all sitting side by side. This city birthed punk (don’t come for me, New York), glam rock, Britpop, and grime. All of us jammed in together, with an incompetent government and developers trying to force us out, but we are in it together.

Circus Nights, Donn Delson

When I first viewed Donn’s work, I was reminded of astronauts’ accounts of the Overview Effect. They describe becoming overwhelmed by a profound appreciation and connection to Earth and humanity, by seeing it small, without borders or barriers, alone in the black emptiness of space.

That love and appreciation for humanity is evident in his work. He photographs the mundane: trucks, shipping containers, beach loungers—with such respect and kindness presenting the flawed beauty of humanity and the incredible planet on which we reside.

By being zooming out of the monotony of the every day, pulling back from the individual details and worries of our own lives, it allows us to see the bigger connected picture.

Fan Dance, Donn Delson

As a boy, Donn’s favourite book was ‘The Once and Future King’ by T.H.White, and in particular the passage where Arthur is turned into a goose. Even then, his imagination was ignited by the idea of soaring above the world. Without boundaries and limitations, without human-imposed rules and separations. This is the feeling he experiences in hanging out of the side of helicopter at 10,000 ft, and the feeling he tries to convey to his audience. This is why he prints in a large format without frames, as there is no box or border when viewing our world from above.

Donn Delson’s photography goes beyond images; they are an invitation to explore the world through a fresh lens and a unique perspective. His openness to serendipity and his rare outlook on life enables him to capture not only the scenes before him but also the deeper essence and emotions within them. His works prompt viewers to pause, reflect, and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world around us.

After circling the docklands we head back down the Thames to Battersea. Donn shouts to me through the headphones “Did we go over your kid’s school?”

“Pretty much!” I yell back, “I’m telling him I’m Tom Cruise!”

We land back at Battersea, and I’m giggling my ass off I return to solid ground. I cannot believe we just did that, no part of my brain is ready to process it or let go of that giddy/free feeling. Ready to embrace Donn’s view on life and serendipity, to be open to what the universe is ready to share with you. You honestly have no idea what is around the corner.

Excitedly I chatter with him about this, not noticing anything around us or the small group moving through the lounge to the pad. Someone then suddenly breaks my focus yelling over ‘that was Tom Cruise!’. Apparently, I’m able to speak things into reality, but I haven’t quite yet opened myself up to experience them. But I’ll keep trying, and one day I’ll get my pilot’s license just like Tom. I’m sure of that.

Donn Delson’s work can be found at https://donndelson.com/