Connecticut Native Makes Her Photographs Soar
The New Britain Herald
Tia Nichole Albright
Boston University Washington News Service
November 7, 2006
WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 – Aviation, beginning with the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, is considered one of the greatest technological advances in human history. Now, a Smithsonian photographer is taking it to a new level.
Carolyn Russo, a photographer at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a Norwalk native, is putting her love for photography and aeronautics on display in her newest exhibition, “In Plane View: Abstractions of Flight.”
In her third-floor office, tucked behind a crowded photography studio and surrounded by darkrooms, the 41-year-old pulls out a box of prints and points to a 24-by-24-inch photograph of the vibrant, red, heart-shaped tail of the Smithsonian’s 1931 Wittman Buster, a midget racing plane. The image pops against a black background.
The photo is part of “In Plane View,’ an exhibit that consists of 65 color photographs of artifacts in the air-and-space craft collection at the Smithsonian. Russo spent many nights during the past three years taking photographs in the empty museum using a medium-format Hasselblad film camera and a strobe light.
“These projects are important in my professional life,” Russo said. “I think ‘In Plane View’ will be important because it illustrates how an artist views aircrafts within a contemporary view of aviation.”
The three-year project, which Russo started work on during her pregnancy with son Jack, now 2, is set to debut at the National Air and Space Museum in March before touring the United States. A forthcoming book will be available in fall 2007.
Along with the 24-by-24-inch and 36-by-36-inch images of engines and aircrafts, the exhibit will feature commentary from historic aviators such as Jimmy Doolittle, Igor Sikorsky and Allan Lockheed. Combining the photographs with the quotes is just one of the ways Russo shows her appreciation for aviation, history and tradition.
Her mother, Joan, a New Britain native who now lives in Colorado, said Russo’s small-town Connecticut roots have provided her with an appreciation for family, an unwavering work ethic and an expansive imagination.
“The Connecticut values that Carolyn has are that she is family-oriented, a real old-fashioned girl who loves the holidays and spending quiet times with her children,” Joan Russo said.
Carolyn’s dedication to Connecticut runs deep: In a quiet quest to keep the state close to her, she refused to give up her Connecticut driver’s license until five years ago, even though she has not resided there since the early 1980s.
“I didn’t really appreciate Connecticut until I left, but I like being from Connecticut, we have good values up there,” she said.
Those values are evident in the mess of photographs of her sons, Max, 7, and Jack, that plaster the wall behind her desk. The two blond-haired boys beam into their mother’s camera lens. It is a reminder of all the challenges of working parents.
Max attends a local elementary school near the family’s home in Manassas, Va., and Jack spends his days playing with the children of other working parents at the Smithsonian’s childcare center.
It is Halloween in Washington, and while most parents are buying last minute bags of Tootsie Pops or putting finishing touches on their spooky spider webs, Russo is cooped up in her office trying to finalize research for her upcoming project and preparing for her exhibition.
Unlike in years past, Russo’s sons are wearing store-bought costumes. “I used to make their costumes, but I don’t have time for that right now,” she said.
Russo’s time constraints are further complicated by her husband’s career. Dr. Robert Craddock is a geologist for the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the museum – a job that frequently requires him to travel to Hawaii and Australia, among other places.
The two met in an elevator – as he recalls it – at the museum in late 1988, but, he said, she ignored him. Russo does not remember the meeting at all, but instead recollects meeting him out at a nightclub in town. The couple was married in 1992 at Norwalk’s St. Matthews Church, where she had been christened.
“As a working mother, there probably isn’t anything harder that I could ask her to do than let me go away for a couple of weeks at a time,” Craddock said. “She always lets me go out of respect for me.”
Russo said that although she picks up more slack by letting Craddock travel now, she knows in the future he will do the same for her, particularly for her newest project tentatively titled “The Art of the Airport Tower.”
The project will involve Russo traveling to various airport control towers in the United States and possibly around the world.
Russo came to the museum in 1988 with a degree in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art. What began as an entry-level job has developed into “a dream job” that allows her to pursue aviation photography projects that interest her.
Her first book, “Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots,” was published in 1997. A seven-year traveling exhibit of the photographs complemented the book, highlighting the women who have made great strides to be respected in aviation.
“I believe pilots portrayed in ‘Women and Flight’ offer inspiration not only to the current and future generation of women pilots, but to all of us,” Russo wrote in the last line of the book’s introduction.
She said the book inspired her to set goals and know that she can reach them if she works hard enough.
In 2003, when Max was a baby, she published “Artifacts of Flight.” It received awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the American Association of Museums.
Looking to the future, Craddock said he is in no rush to see their lives change because “the girl who once ignored me on the elevator now calls me to see when I’m coming home.”
Russo said that she hopes in 10 years they will both still be working at the museum doing the jobs they love.
Russo’s boss, Dr. Ted Maxwell, associate director for the Department of Collections and Research at the museum, said that Russo’s small-town values, good education and love of aviation have helped make her the talented, respected photographer that she is today.
“Carolyn is one of the many talented Connecticut natives that work at the Smithsonian,” Maxwell said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more of Carolyn in the future, and she’s going to continue to expand her role in flight and at the Smithsonian.”