Aerial photographers enjoy the view

Wednesday, June 22, 2005 at 1:00am

Though a lot of people take photographs in this age of digital photography and disposable cameras, only a select few get paid to do so. An even smaller group takes pictures from the sky. And, it's safe to say, only a few of them are women.

"We are unusual," said Wendy Alexander, who with partner Rachel Paul started Aerial Innovations of Tennessee Inc. in June 2003. "A lot of businesses are women-owned. Now it's not so much, 'Wow, it's a woman.' But if you look at construction, photography and aviation, in those three industries, we are a novelty."

Working from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the two primarily shoot for construction companies, real estate developers, architects and engineers. About 80 percent of their business is aerial.

"A lot of clients use it as a visual progress report, a kind of here-is-where-we-are update. It's a great tool," Paul said.

The company has taken aerial photos of construction progress at two of downtown Nashville's most visible projects: the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the Viridian Condominiums. It has also done ground photography of the Saint Thomas Medical Center and Baptist Memorial Hospital renovations.

The two women came to aerial photography from the same starting point, if different paths. They met as photography students at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

A few years later, Alexander began working for Aerial Innovations in Atlanta. "I had been in a plane but not a helicopter. But I was told that I did a great job," Alexander said of her first photo shoot from the sky.

She liked the business, and decided she wanted to do more in the field but didn't want to start a competitive aerial photography company in Atlanta. So she did some research and found that there was a growing client base in Tennessee.

"And I liked the South," said Alexander, a native of Pittsburgh.

In the meantime, Paul worked in Washington, D.C., at various jobs in the photo profession, including creating a U.S. Postal Service stamp of a rose. She took to the air during a shoot of a golf tournament in the D.C. area, and afterward she called Alexander to tell her how excited she was about the experience.

"When I was considering Nashville," said Alexander, "I didn't know if I could do just aerial. By having the two of us," she realized, "we could offer clients more services."

Although the field is specialized, there is competition. It's possible to buy satellite photos of most locations, usually from Internet sites. However, most satellite photos are straight-down shots that are not particularly good for showing the construction progress of a building.

There are also companies that do aerial mapping, which is even more of a specialty and requires an extremely expensive camera. Aerial Innovations can subcontract the work if mapping is needed as part of a project, Alexander said.

"We try to get a lot of jobs done on one flight," she explained, spreading the cost of the flight among several clients and keeping the cost lower.

There are now Aviation Innovations operations in Atlanta, Nashville, and Jacksonville, Fla. "We consider ourselves sister companies in name and spirit," Alexander said, adding that there are no legal or financial connections among the companies.

Aerial Innovations of Tennessee serves the major markets of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville and plans to expand into Kentucky and Alabama in both the ground and aerial aspects of the business.

Though they would like to expand their ground business, the friendly skies have been good to the women of Aerial Innovations. "Our business is definitely growing," Alexander said. "We hope to double sales this year over last."

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