Rick Smith

writing and Photography


This image represents a personal story, a personal experience. This was the first picture made after seeing one of the most dramatic, awesome (in the true sense) scenes I have ever experienced.

I was on a photo flight over the Smoky Mountains east of Knoxville and the pilot was trying to beat a fast moving front over the highest ridge in the southern part of the Appalachians. In retrospect it was not the wisest choice. The storm was moving much faster than had been forecast and the turbulence was the most I have experienced; we were being tossed like the proverbial cork on a stormy sea. We were flying through the narrow space between mountain tops and lowering, heavy clouds, and Rob informed me that we would be temporarily abandoning our flight plan to find the nearest airport and set down to wait out the storm. Rob was very quiet which was unusual. I knew he was fighting the storm, and although I had total faith in his abilities, I had a palpable physical sense for the first time how vulnerable we were in that tiny plane.

We flew around one mountaintop and suddenly to my side of the plane appeared a bright shaft of light coming down between mountaintops, and within that shaft of light was the almost completely vertical base of a double rainbow. I’m sure my jaw dropped. I fumbled with the window to open up and shoot, and as soon as the window was open I heard Rob through my headset say, “close it”. The distraction of an open window adding turbulence inside the cockpit to what was happening outside was obviously too much, so I immediately did as he said. It was the only time in our many flights together that he indicated it was unsafe to shoot. I do value my life over a photograph. I knew this couldn’t last long so I just stared, absorbing as much of the scene as I could. I’m not sure how long it lasted, maybe ten seconds or so, and then our angle changed, the light faded, the clouds moved, and it was gone.        

This brief experience was my closest brush with the sublime (as in the Romantic concept of the Sublime in Art). I was so awestruck that I forgot to be terrified. It occurred to me after those few seconds of the rainbow that if we didn’t make it safely back to the ground I had seen something few people ever get to see, and, at least for that brief moment, that seemed to make it okay. 

This picture is successful or not on its own merits. But what it represents to me is a different scene, an undocumented experience for my eyes, and now memory, only.

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