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Blimp Photographer Lacks Sight but Not Perspective

Matthew McNutt is blind, but he had enough vision to float this business venture: a low-altitude camera for shots of building sites.

January 26, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

He was at the end of his rope when he decided instead to grab hold of the end of a tether.

That is the short explanation of how a blind man became a blimp photographer.

Born with an incurable eye disorder, Matthew McNutt can see only basic outlines -- and only on a bright and sunny day, at that.

But he could see that he needed to make a dramatic career change when he lost his job as a community college program coordinator. So he bought an 18-foot helium-filled blimp and a remote-controlled 35 millimeter camera and let his optimism soar.

Still, "I was pretty nervous the first few times we did it. I thought the whole thing would fly away, or that the camera would fall off," he said.

A dozen years later, McNutt's blimp has hovered over hundreds of construction sites and housing tracts to illustrate Southern California's building boom in a way few can visualize.

McNutt operates the blimp from the ground. Gently tugging its 300-foot tether line, he maneuvers his floating camera platform above tree lines and rooftops to document construction below with what he calls "low-altitude" photography.

Developers and contractors use his pictures to record the pace of work on the ground and as a permanent record of construction materials used. In the event of a legal dispute, the pictures can prove whether work was done according to specifications without the need to partially dismantle the building.

Despite his disability, getting his aerial photo business off the ground wasn't the hard part. Keeping it up is, McNutt, 40, explained as he carefully raised his blimp the other day through a tangle of overhead utility wires in the Cahuenga Pass.

He and his wife, Yolanda, were there to take the final set of aerials of a newly completed, $20-million, 140,000-square-foot project at Universal City Nissan. Previous pictures taken at monthly intervals over the past year had documented the construction project from bare ground to its almost-done stage.

"This job today is strictly a non-windy-day job. I'm in a triangle of power lines right now. A gust of wind would blow me right into one of them," McNutt said as he stood behind the West L.A. Music shop across from the car dealership. "I can handle wind about 10 miles an hour. But not today."

As his wife looked up intently, he slowly raised the blimp to 250 feet. McNutt knew the height because he has marked elevations in 100-foot intervals in black electrical tape wrapped around the green tether line.

The line itself is actually a cable that contains wiring for the remote-control camera and a video monitoring device that clamps on its regular viewfinder. In addition to the weight of the camera, the blimp can hoist only about 300 feet of the tether line -- or about 11 pounds in all.

Yolanda McNutt carried a tiny, black-hooded TV monitor attached to a hand-held controller. The controller can swivel the automatic Nikon film camera (it's equipped with a 20 millimeter wide-angle lens) 360 degrees and tilt it straight down. A button activates the camera shutter.

Watching the small video screen, she described to her husband what the camera was seeing from 25 stories up.

He questioned her about landmarks such as streets or trees that may have been in previous pictures.

When he was satisfied, she pressed the remote shutter button.

The pair had drawn curious stares as they unloaded the blimp from a trailer parked behind the United Armenian Congregation Church next door to the car dealership. Motorists on busy Cahuenga Boulevard West did double-takes when the couple carefully ducked the blimp beneath a spiky-needled pine tree and raised it for another picture.

With vinyl sides the thickness of a beach ball, the $1,100 blimp is susceptible to puncture. One pinhole can flatten it overnight. But a pinhole is hard to see, so Yolanda McNutt positions the blimp in front of her car's headlights at night and looks for the minuscule bright spot in the vinyl that pinpoints the leak. Common adhesive packing tape is used to patch it.

Tree branches are the most common blimp enemies. But one time, someone shot McNutt's blimp out of the sky.

"Once in the San Fernando Valley we were photographing a Ford dealership. I guess someone thought we were photographing something in their backyard that they didn't want photographed. So they shot it down with a shotgun. The police never found them. But we had hundreds of little holes in the blimp," said McNutt, who lives in Moorpark.

Most jobs are easier. McNutt has shot aerial pictures of ocean tide pools for the U.S. Department of the Interior, overhead shots of groups lined up on the beach to form symbols, and high-angle photos of entire student bodies for school yearbooks.

"The kids are always intrigued by what we do and most of them get it right away," he said. "Better than adults. Adults come by and ask if this is a weather balloon."

His clients are jolted when they find out he's virtually sightless. "They'll say, 'I'm sending my blind photographer out to the project site,' " McNutt said.

"Boy, weren't we surprised when we sat down for our first meeting with him," agreed Kathy Sammons, an executive assistant for the Irvine-based Snyder Langston Construction Co. It hired McNutt for the Cahuenga Pass car dealership project.

"He does a great job. And he's much less expensive than an airplane or helicopter."

Blimp photography prices start at $349 per job. As long as he clings tightly to the tether line, McNutt figures he can hold costs down.

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