"People ask me how I knew I could build a plane," he says. "It never occurred to me that I couldn't." I spent the first half of our discussion recently trying to convince Lowery that, in fact, he must be a bit of an adrenaline junkie. He was insistent, "it isn't so!" Thanks to careful preparation, he even claims to have spent more than 1,700 hours in the air in his newest plane without ever getting rained on.
"It's a matter of planning," he says. I say, it's a matter of perspective.
For Lowery, however, it is also a matter of artistic integrity. He recounts a time he was hiking in Prentice Cooper State Park. He was overlooking the Tennessee River Gorge about to take a shot when it occurred to him that this exact photo had been taken by hundreds of hikers. "The most important characteristic an artist must have is uniqueness," he says.
So he started taking flying lessons and ordered a plane kit. His first plane had an open cockpit, 65 horsepower engine and took Lowery 125 hours to build. Once he was in the air he became fascinated with the "curves of the river and its many different moods," he says. "The world is so organized and it has to be. There are lines on the road. There are fences. Over there's a 'No Trespassing' sign. But when you're flying, it's unlimited perspective. You can move in three dimensions. It's the same way with water. "I was meeting people all the time that didn't understand the river," he continues. "They didn't know where it came from or where it went. It bothered me."
I must confess. I was one of those people. As a North Shore resident, the Tennessee River is part of my every day. I drive across Veteran's Bridge to get to work. I take walks every evening across the Walnut Street Bridge. But I knew almost nothing about the river-where it came from, where it went or the many serpentine surprises that sprung from its body. Recently, Lowery published a book of aerial photography titled Tennessee River: Sparkling Gem of the South. The collection represents roughly 950 flying hours, 14 years of photography and images from across the Tennessee River Watershed. It begins in Knoxville at the headwaters of the Tennessee River.
"My shot of Knoxville was a fascinating experience," Lowery says. "You have to see things developing. I circled the city for about half an hour in the dark. The more light that came up, the more I knew where I had to be to get the shot I wanted." The image shows the Henley Street Bridge into downtown Knoxville. A layer of fog shrouds the shoreline and dusky mountains loom in the distance.
After Knoxville, the river heads southwest toward Chattanooga. When looking at a map, it can be difficult to follow due to the confluence of several tributaries such as the Clinch, Emory and Little Tennessee rivers. "It almost seems as if the Tennessee River hasn't decided to become a formal river yet," Lowery says.
If you follow these smaller waterways, you discover a surfeit of natural treasures. For instance, the Little Tennessee River-its mouth located midway between Knoxville and Chattanooga- travels Southeast into the Nantahala National Forest.
At the base of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, the Little Tennessee River is dammed, thus creating the beautiful Fontana Lake. The image captured there by Lowery is rich and simple: yellow sun, blue water and green mountains stretched as far as eyes can see. I find myself surprised that a place so pristine and ancient still exists, and practically just down the road.
Fontana Lake is just one example of these treasures. Further downstream the Tennessee River, near Dayton, is the mouth of the Hiwassee River. Where the two rivers merge, sits Hiwassee Island. Previously unknown to me, this region was my favorite to explore through Lowery's photography.
"There is always such a variety of things happening there," he says. "Once I was flying over and saw a flock of turkeys. I shot a picture and when I went home and put it on the monitor, I counted 121 turkeys." Several photos in Lowery's collection feature huge flocks of Sandhill cranes. My favorite was an image of the cranes midflight taken while Lowery was overhead. The sun was setting, casting orbs of color onto the pasture below.
The river shimmered with white light. "Each flight is a unique experience," he says. "Every photo is a record of time and place, packaged as an expression of art." A few miles southeast, the Tennessee River enters Chattanooga, or as Lowery tenderly calls it the "Crown Jewel." The section on Chattanooga opens with a shot of my neighborhood with the Walnut Street Bridge, the Market Street Bridge and the Delta Queen nestled in the water between the two. There is a shot of Coolidge Park in which Lowery takes particular pride. "I'd flown over the park 100 times," says Lowery. "But on this day in particular, everything was right. The sun was low. The day was hazy so the shadows are soft. You can see the details."
The same is true for his incredible shot of Lula Falls in Lookout Mountain. Just above Point Park, Chattanooga Creek branches off of the Tennessee River. The waterway travels south into North Georgia and merges with Rock Creek. Rock Creek is the source for Lula Falls in Walker County. "The waterfall is often just a trickle. And the trees don't normally change at the same time this way," he says referencing the vibrantly colored forest clustered about the magnificent waterfall.
On the outskirts of Chattanooga, the Tennessee River unexpectedly turns west and carves its way through the Cumberland Mountains thus forming the Tennessee River Gorge. Lowery considers this "one of the greatest scenic wonders in the South. "Typically when I fly over the gorge, I can't see the river. The water is socked in with clouds," he says. During this particular morning flight, the river was visible with just a few low-lying clouds skimming its surface. Lowery lists the Tennessee River Gorge as one of his favorite places to shoot with its cliff faces and lush landscapes. "The textures of the land is what excites me," he explains. After the gorge's 26-mile stretch, the river turns south and cuts across the top of Alabama where it passes river cities like Bridgeport, Stevenson and Scottsboro-known for some of the best fishing in the South. It then briefly sneaks into the northwest corner of Mississippi before cutting back up into Tennessee where it slows on its last leg.
As the Tennessee River crosses into Kentucky it meets up with the Cumberland River and the two run parallel for a handful of miles. The thin strip of land between the two bodies of water is known as Land Between the Lakes, home to state parks and wildlife areas. The final photograph in Lowery's collection shows this region at sunset-sharp purples and pinks pool beneath the silhouettes of shadowy mountains. A few miles north, in Paducah, Kentucky, the Tennessee River ends its journey in the Ohio River.
When I cross the Walnut Street Bridge in the evening, I will think of the river a little differently. Learning about its journey and discovering a few of its secrets did not make the river any less mysterious. It did make me feel more connected to it and somehow, seeing my neighborhood at 800 feet made me feel closer to my city than ever before. I suppose it is just a matter of perspective.