A DRONE'S-EYE VIEW OF MAPLEWOOD AND BEYOND by Donny Levit
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
Mason Levinson’s photography maps out our dynamic landscape
On a bone-chillingly cold day in December 2016, Mason Levinson made his way over to Memorial Park in Maplewood. His wife, Rosie Ostmann, had just bought him a drone for his birthday. He began to prep that birthday gift for its maiden voyage.
Levinson flew the drone up to about 100 feet and captured a photo of his street, South Crescent. “When I got home, I downloaded the photo to my computer and realized that from that angle, the neighborhood bore a striking resemblance to a wine glass, which couldn’t be more fitting for my friends on the Crescents,” he recalls.
The inaugural flight would launch Levinson’s passion and distinct artistic eye for drone photography. And he gladly shares his talent with his community.
While the consumer drone industry has exploded over the last decade, the earliest drone-like invention can be traced back to 1907, when brothers Jacques and Louis Brégue successfully flew a “quadcopter” into the air. Grant you, they needed four people to help steady it and the quadcopter flew all of two feet above the ground. But more than a century later, the drone has become exceptionally high-tech and nimble. While heavily developed by the military, drones are now regularly used for film shoots, geo-mapping, search and rescue efforts, as well as for recreational and professional video and photography. And, of course, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos predicts a “Jetsons-esque” delivery system that may be flying packages onto our doorsteps within years.
For seasoned photographers like Levinson, the drone provides an opportunity to capture stunning visuals, revealing a new perspective on our landscape that people are unable to experience from the ground.
Over morning coffee, Levinson discusses the striking images of Maplewood, South Orange, and elsewhere that make up his drone photography portfolio. “What interests me most is doing this for artistic purposes,” he says. At one point, we are looking down on the building located at the corner of Maplewood Avenue and Baker Street in Maplewood Village. To our surprise, the building that houses the Able Baker on Maplewood Avenue is the same building that houses both Meus and A Paper Hat around the corner on Baker Street.
“Discovering that the Able Baker’s building is actually ‘v-shaped’ is a pretty good reminder that there’s a lot we can’t see from the ground,” says Levinson. “You have to get out there and fly to uncover interesting shots.”
Levinson’s personal and professional journey have afforded him opportunities to develop his photography skills. While Levinson certainly can have a technical discussion about drones, he speaks about his work from the perspective of a visual artist.
For 20 years, Levinson worked at Bloomberg, spending his first decade there as a sportswriter. He covered golf majors, NBA championships, and other sporting events. “I wasn’t much of a photographer, even into my early adulthood,” he says. His career took a turn when he started submitting photos at work. “I would illustrate my stories whenever possible,” he explains. “I’m one of a few people who have both print and photo credits at a major [news] outlet.”
After Bloomberg shuttered his department in 2015, Levinson began working with his wife, Rosie Ostmann, the owner of RoseComm, an award-winning public relations firm based in Hoboken. The couple have lived in Maplewood since 2012. Their daughter Scarlett is a seventh-grader at Maplewood Middle School and their son Everett is a third-grader at Tuscan Elementary School.
Levinson’s early knowledge of photography began when he was growing up outside of Philadelphia. His father, Norman Levinson, was a professional photographer. “He was very well-respected, and I grew up as his light man,” Mason explains. “I learned a lot. He was a stickler for details. [He’d tell] people to remove the napkins from their lap before taking a shot of a table – things like that. But I wasn’t interested in it at the time. And I guess my story is not unlike many in that I probably spent the first half of my life trying to separate myself from the things my dad did. And then the second half of my life was being just like him.”
Through practice and experimentation, Levinson has become adept at not only capturing radiant photographs, but also developing a visual style for his images. He credits the “storybook beauty” of Maplewood as an inspiration. “Part of the reason I got into this [style] is because the community is so charming and capturing different images of it has been fascinating to me,” he explains. “It’s a good fit for this type of photography. I’m trying to do something whimsical and create charming miniatures.”
Levinson employs graphic techniques to alter the images captured from the drone’s vantage point. The photos appear softened and almost dream-like, while maintaining the granular detail of the photographed subject. “People have told me many times that the photos look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he says. In order to create the effect, he borrows from a camera lens practice called tilt-shift photography. “The photo is digitally manipulated to create a shallow depth of field,” he explains.
While he loves to speak about the artistic craft, Levinson is also a licensed drone pilot who takes the rules of flight seriously and understands the demands of flying an object through busy airspace. “One of the personal rules I follow is that the drone should stay as public as possible so people can see me so they I know that I’m not someone creeping around. They can come over and see the footage on my phone,” he explains. “You don’t want to freak people out.”
His children have kept him engaged in a number of ongoing projects. And it’s not all drone photography. Levinson has been Scarlett’s softball coach since 2015. He coaches the MSO Villagers, the town travel team for Maplewood-South Orange, which plays tournaments throughout New Jersey.
But one truly special project Levinson volunteers for is the Tuscan rainbow photo. At the end of the school year, each grade is assigned a color to wear and the student body assembles in the shape of a rainbow. The image is steadily becoming one of the most memorable traditions in Maplewood.
When asked about his involvement with the Tuscan Rainbow, Levinson is quick to credit the “collection of talented Tuscan [parent] photographers who create a kind of magic during this day.” Levinson heads up the drone duties but describes the experience as extremely collaborative.
Chad Hunt, an award-winning photojournalist and Tuscan parent, has also been volunteering each year as part of the Tuscan rainbow photo. Hunt’s daughter, Isadora, finished at Tuscan last spring and now attends sixth grade at Maplewood Middle School.
“Mason is just an all-around great guy and I like talking shop with him,” says Hunt, who sets up on the school’s roof to take the Tuscan photo. (“Chad stands on top of a ladder when he does it,” Levinson says. “It’s very old school.”)
In the past, Hunt has been an embedded photographer with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and his photography has been featured on the cover of Time Magazine. He has also been working with drone photography for the last three years. Hunt took one of the first drone photos of Maplewood’s rainbow crosswalk on Valley Street which was widely circulated – and unfortunately, not always credited – throughout news agencies and social media.
“There are a lot of talented parents at Tuscan,” says Hunt. “You could throw a stick and hit a [parent] photographer at this school. I figure, if I screw this up, one of the other photographers will get a good shot. There’s a real sense of camaraderie here. There’s no competition; everyone just wants to be part of it.”
Levinson sees the collaborative air of the Tuscan rainbow as endemic to the nature of the town. “This community is so incredibly inspiring. To be able to participate in doing something creative is rewarding – whether its flying drones or taking photos.”
Donny Levit is a journalist, writer, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his show “Under the Influence” on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Twitter @donnyreports and Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio.