Ex-engineer Damien O’Mara photographs the mechanical beauty of planes

by Louise Martin-Chew for Art Guide Australia

Structural engineer to artist is an unusual career segue, but Damien O’Mara cherishes the freedom to create work driven by personal creative interests. “I am coming to it as a second career, and can, with art making, do what I choose,” he says. “That has been very encouraging.”

In his solo show, Dreamliner, O’Mara has utilised his engineer’s understanding of aircraft in his photographs.

“We used to live under the flight-path here on the Gold Coast. I approached the airport and they gave me access to the planes on the tarmac. I did three shoots on the runway with the newest international aeroplane, the Dreamliner 787.” Introduced in 2015, the Dreamliner is innovative in its design and provided an ideal subject for his project which became an up-close and intimate portrait of the aircraft.

“I am interested in the way photography has drawn on the industrial modernist form,” O’Mara says, “Aeroplanes are contemporary machines. I wanted to present The Dreamliner in such a way as to allow it to be freed from modernist associations, by obstructing its completeness. I wanted to facilitate engagement with its details and components, to highlight their abstracted nature.”

Accordingly, O’Mara focuses on vignettes of planes. His images are painterly in the way they capture colour, light, shadow and reflection. In one image, a turbine in the foreground is suspended from the wing (allowing us to see within its stilled spinning parts) and it dwarfs the machines that are seen behind. Another detail of the side of an aeroplane becomes a symphony of curvilinear formations, picked out in dark and light, a flash of red, reflecting light and its own componentry. This creates a beautiful object that seems to contemplate its own image, with narcissistic connotations.

These images rebut the archetypal version of the plane: distant and complete, instead fragmenting and reshaping the way in which we may appreciate that, despite their weight and materials, they take flight. However, O’Mara also acknowledges their imperfections, an interesting point given that humanity is currently contemplating robotic and machine-dependent futures (at least partly to eliminate human error). O’Mara’s images describe a contemporary industrial machine as a contemporary symbol. “A lot of the images depict parts of the structure that aren’t necessarily positive,” he explains. “Some depict damaged panels, or panels repaired with tape, some depict dirty and corroded mechanical parts.”

The intrinsic attraction of machines for humanity, yet their fallibility, is implied in O’Mara’s work; certainly they render the built form as an intriguing extension of a human-constructed world.

Damien O’Mara: Dreamliner
Gold Coast Art Centre Gallery & Gold Coast Airport Arrivals Hall
27 August – 23 October

Damien O’Mara, Dreamliner 

By Virginia Rigney, Senior Curator, Gold Coast City Art Gallery

August, 2016

Once the domain of a privileged few, the increased availability of air-travel has reshaped both global commerce and individual behaviour.  With an estimated 3.6 billion people passing through the world’s airports in 2016, air travel has, for some, become just another commute.

In the whirl of security checks, retail diversions and now often the vast distances that need to be navigated through the unfamiliar giant complexes that airports have become, direct engagement with the exterior of an actual aeroplane is reduced to the fleeting moment with the passenger is funnelled through an air bridge and steps over the threshold and on-board.

This series of photographs by Damien O’Mara seek to redress an engagement with the aeroplane as a complex industrial object, loaded with symbols and aspirations but also signs of use and ownership.

His specific subject is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was introduced in 2015 and is now entering the fleets of airlines around the world. This aeroplane is celebrated for innovation in design and function, but O’Mara denies the conventional photographic view of a gleaming form flying through blue skies, and approaches it with a clear eye, to make what could be likened to an intimate and direct portrait, without makeup, lights or artifice.

His interest in making this series has been shaped by his own professional background as a structural design engineer before he directed his attention to filmmaking in 2009 and then began a concentration on still photography and the development of alternative narratives for representing masculinity and technology. The cannon of industrial photography was established as a genre within Modernist photography from the 1920s with artists such as Wolfgang Sievers and Max Dupain being some of the best known exponents in Australia with their dramatic black and white images of factories and industrial processes.

O’Maras very large detailed photographs are consciously quite different, and to make them he was given supervised access on the tarmac of Gold Coast Airport over a number of weeks. This ability to be in close proximity to these giant structures allowed for very close observation, and further work in the studio to crop and edit the images has drawn out further revelations in understanding forms and details. Up close it is now possible to read the metallic surface of the aeroplane like a skin, with rivets and repairs, the details of small fixings and the implied power of the raw machinery of the engines.

The project is an appropriate one to have been generated by a Gold Coast artist. The Gold Coast as an iconic tourist destination is one that has historically celebrated the arrival experience and it is also one of the few major Australian airports where passengers still do directly walk out onto the tarmac before climbing the stairs and into the plane.

Airports are theatres of human behaviour and their attraction is often the opportunity to sit quietly and observe fellow travellers. This series might encourage a similar appreciation of the design ingenuity of the immense structures we fly in and through looking deeply and intently at them, also helps us to conquer unspoken fears and the suspension of natural disbelief in placing trust in these flying machines.


Virginia Rigney

Senior Curator