Eldred Allen is an emerging artist from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, NL, who owns and operates Bird’s Eye Inc. After a series of photographs taken of feeding whales at the Rigolet wharf went viral, Allen sat down with John Geoghegan, Senior Editor of Inuit Art Quarterly, to discuss his process.
John Geoghegan: How did you get started in photography?
Eldred Allen: I’ve always been interested, but never actually pursued it. I always worked in a technical context, but then I started my own company three years ago, Birds Eye Inc. We use drones to do aerial picture and video and also to collect data to help projects and do inspections and 3D modeling. Some of our clients were asking if they could supplement our drone work with ground-based pictures, so I got a mirrorless camera. It’s really taken off…not only for my business but also as a personal hobby, a passion I suppose. I’m using the camera everywhere, I’m trying to use it to take pictures of and capture the landscape and the people and the culture that we live in. It’s a unique place and not a lot of people get to see images from this location, so I’m trying to use it to capture as much as I can and show other people where we live and how we live.
JG: Are there other photographers whose work you admire, or do you stay focused on your own?
EA: I consider myself a new photographer, so I don’t really have a set [subject]. Some people are dedicated landscape photographers and some are portrait photographers. I find that I enjoy taking landscape photography, still but there’s so many interesting things here to see that I want to capture, like the unique wildlife that we have, the people that we have, the culture that we have…so I’m finding that I’m focussing more on capturing and demonstrating our lifestyle as opposed to just being what I thought I was going [to be,] a landscape photographer. What I’ve learned from watching all these other photographers who made a career with their artwork is that you can be a photographer and you can continually develop over the lifespan of your photography [practice]. You might start out focussing on one thing, and then you develop and shift over to something else. I don’t have that one thing right now that I like to focus on, but just demonstrating where we live and our culture is what I am looking at right now.
JG: You mentioned that your work is going to be in “Our Beautiful Land”. Has your work ever been shown in a fine art context elsewhere?
EA: Not in that sort of exhibition context. I have submitted some of my pictures in local contests, and I had my images selected for a local photo contest last year, so three of my images were in a calendar out of the 12 months. I went to a conference this spring and won second place in a contest there [as well].
JG: Do you have a favourite photograph?
EA: Some of my favourite ones are where I use the drone to get [an] aerial perspective. We’ve got wildlife that you see from ground level, but pictures from a downward perspective really opens things up. I’ve got one with a seal just below the surface, coming out of his breathing hole, and it’s looking up. I captured the seal just as it was going to break through the water. I’ve got a lot of different ones now from using my hand-held mirrorless camera. I took some of a minke whale here breaching and feeding last week. Capturing those unique things are great, and I really like those photos, but it’s hard to pick a favourite.
JG: How has your work been received by others? I know that you share things on Facebook and Twitter; is there anywhere else that you share your photos?
EA: We don’t have a website right now, but [I do] share things on Facebook and Twitter and often on Instagram, and the reception is always great. I just shared some images of that minke whale I mentioned surfacing, and it’s garnered a lot of attention on Facebook alone—my pulse with four images is up over 50 thousand views. I’ve had a company from the UK and a reporter from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador contact me to share the images. Everybody’s always really excited to see images from here, especially those unique ones from drones.
JG: How is the internet where you are? Is it difficult to work with at times?
EA: Yes, very tough. I captured some video of the same minke whale feeding here, and I had a very small clip, about 57MB in size, which could take me two hours or more to upload. Most times it’s longer, a lot of times it’ll fail and you have got to try to restart.
When I do pulse processing, a lot of times I’ll have to downgrade the quality so that uploads are faster. If I have people who are interested in seeing my pictures, rather than exporting at 100% quality, I’ll downgrade to 10%—which makes it look terrible, of course, going from 10MG to a half megabyte—and I’ve got to send those out just so that uploads are easier. If I do share things with Google Drive, I do an overnight upload.
JG: Do you have any dream projects that you would really love to show in the future?
EA: There is one project that I’ve had on my mind now for a couple of years. There is a cod fishery out on the coast called Smokey. It was a little community, and we used to live out there in the summer. When the fishery closed down in 1991, everybody just left. I’d like to generate a 3D model of Smokey to show what it looks like.
Sir Wilfred Grenfell had done a lot of work on the north coast of Labrador, and one of his first hospitals was in Indian Harbour, [which is] directly adjacent to Smokey. We used to live just below the old foundation of the hospital. I’d really like to do Smokey and then also do Indian Harbour to try to preserve that and share that with people as well.
JG: Can you talk to me a little bit about how you do 3D modelling and what it’s used for?
EA: In the old days of cartography and maps, if you wanted to see something in 3D you had stereoscope glasses. You’d look down at a map and have two overlapping pictures [which] kind of created a 3D view of what you were looking at.
I use an app to generate a flight plan over a project site. I did one last week of a local archeological dig. I create a grid over the project site, and the drone takes off and flies grid lines. As it’s flying the grid lines, it’s taking images looking straight down. I captured 270 individual pictures, and I processed them in what’s called photogrammetry software. The software looks at all those pictures and, because they are overlapping, it sees a rock in one picture and sees that same rock in five other pictures, and draws a line through that rock. Because the pictures are at different angles, all those lines converge and gives it a 3D point. The model I generated of this small archeological site has over 22 million points, and that creates a point cloud. The software takes all of the images and overlays those on top of that point cloud to give a 3D representation of what the site looks like. There’s a dig in one location of the archaeological site about one and a half feet deep, and the 3D model is so precise that I can actually go inside that hole and look around.
Once that 3D model is generated, you can do analysis. If you could only get out somewhere for one week, but you needed measurements, maybe surface areas, and a digital representation for further analysis, the 3D model can do that. I can sit here and measure how far away the house is from the shore, or how long all those houses are. I 3D-modeled a bunch of Inukshuks for [another research team]. If a client has a quarry and they’ve got a stockpile of rock, I could generate a 3D model and then calculate how much material is in the stockpile.
You can actually take that 3D model and export it to a KML [file]. If I sent you this KML, it would load up in Google Earth on your computer, and you could interact fully with it.
An orthomosaic will take those 200 single pictures and make them into one large one. It’s like a huge panoramic of the project site you can put within Google Earth and interact with. It even generates a 3D PDF that you can send someone to interact with the model. I want to generate a video, because a lot of people don’t know what drones can do and the value of them.
JG: Your Facebook cover photo, is that a generated 3D model?
EA: That’s a test site that I did. Those rectangles above the project site are all the individual pictures that it took. The 3D model beneath it is what’s generated.
I actually did a view within Google Earth, where I rotated it and zoomed right down to drone level. The project site is right on the beach looking out at the water, so I did it from the perspective that you are standing on the beach. Because Google Earth is 3D, you’ve got the 3D land and everything all around you, and if you rotate the view around it’s like you are standing there looking at the site. It’s pretty neat because in one of the individual pictures from the 3D model there is a seal right on the surface of the water swimming along.
JG: For projects like that, do you maintain the copyright? Or does control of the image rights go to the company that paid for the work?
EA: It depends on the client, what they are doing with the data and how their organization is set up. 99% of the imagery that I have collected over the last three years is 100% owned by me.
I met a group the other day that’s going to be coming up to the [Akami–uapishku – Kakkasuak – Mealy Mountains National Park Reserve]. I captured some beautiful video from up in the park, and they are interested in buying it to generate a marketing video. They were excited that I actually owned rights to all of the footage that I shoot, [which I have] because I am out flying my drone whenever I am not doing any work for anybody, and I have my camera with me at all times.
JG: Even to this day, when you look at travel magazines like Canadian Geographic, many of the photos are taken by people just passing through. There is so much value in local artists who are from communities. They have more insight into the potential for making images.
EA: You get a more intimate perspective on what it is like to be here. Our local all-grade school wanted to make the school more culturally inclusive. I took pictures of local craftspeople while they were producing crafts. Having somebody local who knows the people [means] being able to get into their kitchens as they are producing crafts at their kitchen tables. The school purchased 25 of my images to put in different locations throughout the school to highlight what it’s like to be here and what it’s like to be from here. It gives that more local perspective.
Learn more about Eldred Allen at his IAQ Profile.
This interview is part of our Emerging Arctic Photographers Spotlight, in collaboration with Gallery 44’s online exhibit Looking Down From Up.