City Museum. Kiener Plaza. Busch Stadium. With his camera gear in tow, Justin Barr travels around St. Louis taking photos of the area’s most iconic locations. These images capture the imagination of 11-plus thousand followers on his Instagram account, STL from Above. But what sets this photographer apart from the crowd is his (physical) perspective: he’s shooting from above. Way above.
In 2013, leading up to the birth of his daughter, Barr purchased a DSLR camera. He was fairly familiar with the operations, he explains, and quickly began sharing his images on Facebook. Within a few months, a friend’s brother asked him to do a family session—and portraits, after a few years, turned into wedding requests.
“I had never shot a wedding, but before her wedding day I had asked in a local photographer Facebook page if anyone would allow me to shadow them,” Barr says, noting someone agreed assuming he’d share his images. “Almost a week later, Samantha [of Mirage Photo in St. Charles] called and asked, ‘I thought you said you haven’t shot weddings before?’ She said my pictures were the best she’s ever seen of a first-time photographer and offered me a job right there.”
To Barr, who works as a project manager for a commercial AV company, the gig was perfect. He could continue his 9-to-5 during the week and serve as the second photographer for weddings on the weekend. He eventually decided to amp up his gear options with a drone, but while it was used a bit for weddings he says it happened to be a slow year.
“The drone was collecting dust,” Barr says. “I decided to take [my daughter] Giulia out to see some places around town, and I brought the drone with me to take some photos. I edited them like I always edit my photos and posted them online. They were very well received.”
Barr explains someone recommended he make an Instagram account, although he was unfamiliar with the app. He took the leap on Father’s Day in 2017, and the audience grew quickly. “I was ecstatic! Strangers were liking my photos. So I took more photos. And more… It’s been a pretty wild ride and things just keep growing.”
The response, Barr says, has been overwhelming at times. He takes a moment when he can to respond to emails during the day, but he’s a busy father who still works his regular job. Area organizations, like Saint Louis University and Gateway Arch Park, have hired him for commissioned images. He has helped the Landmarks Association of St. Louis inspect historic, hard-to-reach buildings. He sells prints of his pieces online. He’s even been recognized a few times around town.
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While any professional photographer has tons of administrative work to be done behind the scenes, Barr’s drone photography comes with its own set of unusual challenges. “I’m working on getting clearance to shoot on the Arch grounds,” Barr says. “It’s a slow process to apply for permission through the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].” And his type of equipment—either the DJI Phantom 4 Pro or DJI Mavic Pro—just can’t be used in some places, like over the Saint Louis Zoo. (“I’ve already been told no because it will freak out the animals.”) But everything Barr does is by the books. As one post on his feed explains, St. Louis From Above is a no-trespassing series.
Another unique issue? Since he’s shooting from above, Barr doesn’t know exactly how things will look in advance. “Oddly enough, I use Google Earth a lot,” he says. “The shot I did of the Gateway Geyser with the Arch in the background for St. Louis Magazine—I used Google Earth to figure out roughly how the angles would look.”
This issue was particularly prevalent while shooting the image he now calls his favorite: the Busch Stadium Tiny Planet photo, which he took during the off season on a whim. He explains the effect, which “sometimes doesn’t work right,” required 36 images to be formatted together. “I actually didn’t even get to see what the final image looked like until I put them all into a computer program to stitch them together,” he explains. “It took like 10 minutes and when it finally popped up, I almost screamed. I couldn’t believe it turned out so perfect.”
In addition to success online, Barr’s art has been picked up and shared by local media, as well as commissioned by outlets for unusual projects. He recently worked with KSDK to showcase the Fox Theater interior from new angles—a “bucket list” location, he says. But to Barr, the greatest success seems to come from the response of the audience.
“The best is hearing that people who moved away from STL look forward to seeing my photos because it reminds them of home,” Barr says. “It really makes it worthwhile to bring a bit of joy to someone’s life.”