Photo Portfolio: The Sky’s the Limit
The day began as most do for Aaron Gormley: with an adventure. He couldn’t resist the offer from his pilot buddy Tim to fly around Maine—Gormley, an aerial photographer, had yet to see Maine’s coastline from the air. Aboard Tim’s Cessna 210, he captured in rapture the rich island chains before him. As they made their way south back to Cape Cod, the plane ascended in altitude, reaching above the spotty cloud layer. Gormley had his sights on Race Point. Tim prepared the approach, ready to perform a racetrack loop around. As they descended through the clouds, Gormley was awe-struck: It was Cape Cod, but like he’d never seen it before. The broken cloud cover—saturated in dark, painterly swaths of teal blue—gave the appearance of the heavens peaking open, diffusing the light perfectly across the glorious hook of the Cape and the remaining stretch of the peninsula as it faded into the distance, and seemingly into the sky. Gormley raised his camera and pressed the shutter.
“Timing’s everything for a photograph,” he says, “and it’s the unexpected moments that really stand out to me.”
Life has been chock-full of unexpected moments for the 32-year-old—and that’s just the way he likes it. “I see a lot of people that just move like sheep do—together, in a pack. It’s easier to go with the flow, but if you can jut off on your own, you’re going to find your own paths,” he says.
Gormley, a New Jersey native, made the first big step in his life journey at age 20, when he left home to join the U.S. Coast Guard. “I was in one of my college classes wondering how many people were going to wind up in cubicles for the rest of their lives, and that was really bothering me,” he recalls. “I grew up traveling. My parents are travelers, and we would go to national parks a lot. I always appreciated that, and I just had an urge to get out of the state. I went out and found the Coast Guard recruiter, and the Coast Guard gave me the opportunity to have these choices to go to all of these different places.”
At boot camp, Gormley made quite an impression. “I was one of our squad leaders, and I got ‘most physically fit.’ I did all the pushups—I would definitely create attention,” he admits. The title served as more than just a superficial recognition—it afforded him the opportunity to have first choice out of boot camp in selecting where he would serve. Among his many options was Alaska. “I thought, Alaska’s pretty far. I’ll go there,” he recalls with a laugh. There he spent over 300 days at sea in the Gulf of Alaska, working in a multitude of roles, including master helmsman, boarding team member and rescue swimmer, on a 110-foot ship with 18 crew. “I got my butt kicked out there,” he says. “I left for Alaska with optimism—definitely packed that in my bag—so I always told myself, no matter how bad you might think that it is, it’s not that bad. That was a big growing experience for me.”
Before heading to Alaska, Gormley was gifted a camera from the girl he was dating at the time. “I started shooting up in Alaska. It was like a photo journal, because I wanted to let my mom know that I was alive,” he says. It wasn’t long before photography also became a passion.
In joining the Coast Guard, Gormley’s goal was to ultimately get into aviation. Following his time at sea in Alaska, he went to North Carolina to attend aviation school, where he studied aviation maintenance, eventually working on jets, cargo planes and helicopters. From North Carolina he went down to Alabama and was trained as a spotter. “So when, say, a ship were to sink in the water, it was my job to find the person that’s held onto the cooler,” he explains. He also received further training to become a dropmaster, deploying survival equipment to mariners in distress. “It was definitely a rewarding job.” Two years later he was relocated to the East Coast, where he discovered Cape Cod.
“I was just inspired when I saw Cape Cod from the air,” he says. “It’s a very unique place, unlike any other place I’ve seen before. I was so inspired that I jumped onto more flights, so I would find friends that were pilots and I got to grab my camera and go up and shoot.”
When Gormley’s service on the East Coast came to an end, the Coast Guard informed him he had a choice of next being stationed in Miami, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, or Corpus Christi, Texas for the next 13 years. “But I really had no interest in going to any of those places,” he says, “so that was my deciding factor in getting out of the service and then going to New Zealand.” Why New Zealand? “New Zealand just seemed like a great place to go,” Gormley explains. “I love being around the ocean—I’m fascinated by coastlines, that’s one of my favorite things to photograph. And I was drawn to the culture—there’s a great, friendly community of people I had read about.”
So, after being honorably discharged from the Coast Guard after serving seven and a half years, he sold all of his possessions (except his camera), went down to just a backpack, and bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand. He remembers how perplexed his friends and family were as to why he would want to travel 9,000 miles across the world, to a foreign country, alone. “I was like, ‘Well, I have a lot of friends over there, I just haven’t met them yet.’ That was my mentality,” he explains. “And I met a great group of people from around the world.”
Gormley took part in a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, exchanging volunteer work for three meals a day and a place to sleep. During his 11 months in New Zealand, he stayed with 23 families, operated three campgrounds, worked on a tuna boat, made wine, herded cattle, milked cows, sheered and vaccinated sheep, and practiced organic farming techniques. “I was going there for the landscape, for the things I had read about,” he says, “but I got lost, and it was great.” His Coast Guard days proved valuable, as many farmers he worked with would often have run-down planes he would repair and, in return, he’d get to fly on those planes to photograph New Zealand’s coastline.
“I felt like, even though I was 9,000 miles away from home, as long as I had my camera I was taking my friends with me,” Gormley says. “I’d be on remote beaches that are so beautiful—there are no people, and I’m like, did nobody get the memo? Like, it’s beautiful out here. And I’d be so far lost, but even though I’d be standing there by myself, I could imagine my friends being there with me, so I was taking them for a trip as well. That really helped me hone in on my photography and realize that I do have a gift.”
From New Zealand Gormley went back home to New Jersey, where he worked for his father’s pest control business. “I was fortunate enough to start incorporating organic pest control techniques that I had learned on these farms in New Zealand,” he notes. He did that for about a year, “but it really wasn’t my niche,” Gormley explains. “I still wanted to pursue my photography.” Brandon Canter, Gormley’s best friend since first grade, gave him the push he needed to pursue his photography as a career. “He said,” Gormley recalls, “‘Listen, you have all this beautiful photography, and it’s selfish that you’re going to keep that to yourself,’ because I had no interest to start a business from this. I just liked going to shoot and see cool things.” Gormley decided to move from New Jersey to where he felt his heart belonged—Cape Cod—and from there he and Canter started Cape Aerials.
“I really attach myself with the community here,” he says. “I like the people, and I like being here; this is a fun place for me.” Gormley has now photographed the entire coastline of the Cape, artistically capturing the region’s dynamic and nuanced landscapes. “My mind goes a million miles an hour when I’m shooting photography,” he says. “I’m looking around for that shot—I’m looking for my composures, studying how light’s touching onto my subject. I’m finding a weight to a picture, so if something’s weighted more onto one side, how do I find a balance onto the other side so that way the eye can move from one side to the other side. So I’m trying to tell a story through my photography without having to use words.”
He’s even done underwater photography, having completed 40 dives to date. “This is me challenging myself, and nobody is going to challenge me harder than myself,” Gormley says. “If I can keep doing that, then I have a great world that just never ends. I can take my camera to all these places and then come back and show people the big picture.”
In Gormley’s life, the big picture is making a positive impact through his photography. With his collection of over 100,000 photographs taken during his 20s, Gormley plans to put those photographs, and the stories behind them, to paper and release his own book. Of sharing his stories and his work, “If I can say that I broke my shell, and this is what I became,” he explains, “that could inspire somebody else to say, I want to get out of my shell and I want to do something like that.” He also would like to partner with such local organizations as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Mass. Maritime, with the hopes his photography can help contribute to the understanding of the region’s coastal environment.
Currently, Gormley has been working to get his Cape Aerials displayed in various galleries, restaurants and bars. Outside of the Cape and Islands, he’s been developing a series of coastline photos from Maine to New York City, and he says his goal is to stretch Nova Scotia. Additionally he’s honing his craft with online courses through Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. “I’m also driving the Zamboni over at Falmouth Ice Arena. That’s probably one of the cooler jobs I’ve ever had,” he says with a smile. “People started using a Forest Gump reference, like, you’ve been there done that. And I was like, yeah, my Zamboni’s my tractor,” he says, laughing. “I’m alright with being Forest Gump, that’s fine.”
During one poignant scene in “Forest Gump,” Forest ponders, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both.” For Gormley, it just might be both—or maybe it’s his own self-determination that really deserves the credit. “I want people to realize that there are other options than just the ones that we think are given to us; there’s way more,” he says. “Until I actually got out in the world and found myself and learned who I am, then I was able to pick a direction. It took a lot of effort to go out there to do that. I took a lot of chances, and I was scared for a lot of them too.
“My friend Joel says, ‘Some people, they talk the talk. You, my friend, you walk the walk,’” Gormley adds. “It was really cool to stand out, to go out on my own to challenge myself into a world that was unknown.”
Gormley’s enthusiastic approach to life has recently been put into perspective, in light of the recent passing of his friend Mark Morin, who he met when he first visited the Cape in 2012. “When I first showed up here, I went down to Falmouth to go to the Main Street Barber Shop, and Mark was the first person I met,” he recalls. “He welcomed me with arms wide open. For a guy that just showed up in town and didn’t know where to go, he really pointed me in every right direction. He supported all my work—he was so thrilled about it.”
To Gormley, “The hardest part of my journey, whether it be joining the Coast Guard or leaving for New Zealand, was walking out of the door. Everything after that was easy. Go out every day and be happy. Don’t wait for something to happen—go make it happen. There’s no sense in waiting.”
As he looks to the future, Gormley is optimistic about what lies ahead. “I’m ready, whatever it may be,” he says. “There are more places to go, and there’s more of a story to tell.”
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