Norman Kent may be world-renowned as a freefall photographer, but he’s way more interesting than even that would imply. We’ll set aside the fact that he fell in love with photography when he was lost in a Mexican jungle — after he found skydiving, things got even more interesting (and not only in the ways you might expect.
“I had been doing photography and cinematography for a couple of years before I discovered skydiving,” Norman explains. “By then, I was in free-spirit mode. I had always thought about skydiving, but I didn’t know you could do it as a civilian. I thought you had to be an astronaut, or military. Then, through my contacts and my work in photography, I met somebody who talked to me about having friends who owned a skydiving club and skydived for fun. I went, like, wow, and pursued it.”
This was in Mexico, in 1975.
“At the time, it was something that I wanted to do it once to say I had done it — like a feather in my cap. They offered me a 5-jump package. The first jump cost a certain amount. The 5-jump package only cost 30% more, and yet I said no. I only want to do this once and that’s it.”
When young Norman jumped, he was surprised by a remarkably free feeling even though it was only a static-line.
“Then the perspective of the aerial, and the quietness of being there under the parachute,” he adds, “somehow it hit me and became super interesting.”
When Norman landed, the entourage of friends and family who had accompanied him to the dropzone came up to the landing area to celebrate.
“I was still all tangled up,” he laughs, “And amazed that I had actually done it. I remember my friends anxiously asking me: ‘How was it?’ and I clearly remember telling them: ‘I am going to do this for the rest of my life’ Sure enough, I’m still doing it.”
According to Norman, it’s not the excitement of the jump that attracts him. It’s not even the jumping itself, really. It’s the subtler parts of the enterprise that keep him attracted to keeping these visual records of skydiving, over and over and over, and he saw it right from the start.
“I think that what I saw there is more the attraction of beauty,” he muses. “The reason I say that — well, there is the adrenaline and all that stuff, but I saw in that first jump a peaceful beauty I wanted to portray in photography. Already being a photographer, I couldn’t wait to put a camera on.”
And so he did. Norman had only 20 jumps when he created his own helmet, with his own mounts, and proceeded to learn camera flying through what he refers to as “an awful a lot of mistakes.” Where he was jumping in Mexico, there weren’t a lot of regulations.
“I was getting away with whatever the hell I wanted to,” he laughs, “because I had the drive, and I was a good student, and most people were so afraid. They were doing it anyway, but they were afraid.”
One key thing that Norman isn’t afraid of: things going wrong. In fact, he digs that.
“Obviously, there are times when things go wrong in a jump as far as the skydiving plan,” he explains. “I don’t mean safety-wise. Sometimes to me those ‘mistakes’ are the most beautiful part of the jump, and I come down so excited because of the visuals and what I’ve been able to capture. Then I realize people are not sharing my enthusiasm.”
He retells the story during the shooting of his film “From Wings Came Flight” as an example. For this particularly problematic jump, the 40-odd participants were trying to do a formation of counter-spinning concentric circles around a central tandem. The circles, spinning against each other, kicked up unexpected turbulence; the tandem, in the eye of this surprise storm, was tugged up and out to the side.
“One time it happened and the whole thing went quite literally sideways,” Norman says. “All of a sudden we found ourselves with everybody chasing the tandem to get back in position. While that was happening, I got the most beautiful picture of this color-coordinated group of people all in a tracking position, just like we now do. Back then, there was no formation angle flying or anything like that, but here were all these people tracking really closely together, because they had started linked, and flying beautifully. I left the tandem out of frame, so you couldn’t necessarily see what was going on; you could only see all these people intensely tracking in a certain direction, all together, it was beautiful.”
“I found beauty there,” he opines, “because, just on account of something having gone wrong, you have all these people, all at the same time, being super intense to correct a problem and doing what needed to be done, and that to me is magical and beautiful. That is what I like to capture.”
That jump-gone-wrong, as a matter of fact, ended up featured on one of Norman’s calendars.
“The way I see it is this,” he notes. “You didn’t complete the goal? Okay, that’s one thing. But what you are doing is being a courageous, talented human being while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. To me, that is much more appealing than any record or formation itself. The record or formation is just one way to measure the goal. The people being who they’re being, that’s beautiful and that’s what I like to portray, people being amazing, people being!”