For a tiny fraction of the world's elite, a billion dollars isn't much. A billion dollars is a startup buyout in Silicon Valley. A billion is what Chinese industrialists make building the fake version of iPhones and fidget spinners. It's a nice chunk of change, sure, but $1 billion will only see you flying around in a Gulfstream or a Cessna, or some other piddly nothing-to-write-home-about jet.
For Gulf State royals and a handful of Russian Oligarchs, "rich" means a very different thing. This elusive clique of multibillionaires buy up large commercial jets from Boeing or Airbus and adorn them with handwoven carpets, wood paneling, and gold everything. It's a privileged world that's near impossible to get inside unless you happen to be the aviation photographer hired by the plane's interior designer to capture the fit out. At least, that's how Nick Gleis gets in.
Gleis has made a career out of photographing the planes of the super elite. Originally trained in landscape photography by Ansel Adams, Gleis fell into aviation photography almost by accident. He's been doing it for more than 30 years now and has photographed somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 planes. VICE spoke to him from his home in Virginia.
VICE: Hey, Nick, tell me what you love about planes.
Nick Gleis: Well, basically, I couldn't care less. Airplanes do nothing for me. I don't see airplanes as anything other than a piece of transportation. Instead, my passion lies in photographic images. I just find that the interiors of executive aircraft allow me to take my level of photography up another step.
Right. What do you mean by that?
What I mean is that when you board an executive jet, its quality is beyond what the normal person really understands. An executive airplane can have virtually anything on it—anything a fancy house, apartment, or castle has in it. The difference is that you're flying at 500 miles an hour, so weight is an absolute factor. Imagine your dining room table—on the ground you probably can't pick it up, but in these planes, you can pick one up in each hand. The aircraft has to have the same ambience and functionality, except everything needs to be lightweight, and with a quality that you almost need a microscope to see. That just blows me away.
OK, let's rewind a bit. How did you get into this job?
About 30 years ago, I was working for a photography company out in Burbank, California. I was 27 years old, and the commission was from a company called Tiger Air, and they had a Boeing 727-100 that they were putting an executive interior in. The company I was working for got the commission to do progress photography every two weeks. It takes a year or two to complete these airplanes, and at the end, they needed photos of the final product. I got to do those ones.
And from there you became the luxury plane guy?
No. I saw that this was an ongoing opportunity, so I found a company operating out of LAX by the name of Garrett AiResearch, and they were one of the largest completion centers in the world. They were doing the interiors of like 40 airplanes a year. I mean, it was huge. I went down to AiResearch, and I begged and pleaded for more work. And you know what they say, the rest is history.
So you begged your way into the job, but you say you don't care about planes. What motivated you?
Ah, of course. I imagine it's a good paycheck?
Can be, yeah. The bottom line is: Would you rather be one of a million wedding photographers, or would you like to be one of three aircraft photographers?
The second one. So you've now been doing this for 30 years. Have you seen changes in elite plane fashion in that time?
What's happened with the aircraft industry is that they've become more and more conservative. The days of opulence are fading quickly. The Saudi royal family airplanes are very businesslike. They are, I want to say, currently like the interiors of BMWs. They're very nice, don't misunderstand me, but they don't have the flair that designers put into 747s in the 80s and 90s.
So today you aren't seeing things like that jacuzzi-looking sink?
Exactly. That sink is made of abalone; you just don't see design like that anymore. The thing that you see in the middle the faucet—If you put your hand on the right side cold water would come out; if you put your hand on the left, warm water would come out. If you touched the middle, a middle temperature came out. That entire faucet structure came seamlessly from one piece of aluminum.
Tell me about the world's richest people.
I find that the super rich are generally very nice people. They're not condescending assholes like some American celebrities are. The Kardashians, for example, they are very rich, but they're not rich like the rich I deal with. They're paupers in comparison. The rich that I deal with are very formal and very private. They're aware of who they are, and they're aware that everybody in the world would like to get next to them. So they don't tend to embrace strangers, but they do it without being impolite.
Having said that, they are very demanding because they're paying for the best. They expect results. If something goes wrong and they don't like it, you won't hear from them; you'll hear it from their representatives. The higher up you go, the nicer they are, which again is different from American celebrities. I'm appalled at the crap that those guys get away with. They have no class whatsoever. They think that flying around in their little Gulfstream aircraft is hot stuff, but they just have no clue what it's really like.
Are you saying that out of personal experience?
Oh absolutely, yeah. I've done a lot of celebrity's airplanes.
Tell me about the rudest celebrity you've dealt with.
I can't. But I can tell you the person who I like the most, and that's probably Tom Cruise. The people who manage his aircrafts are clients of mine, and he would always ask, "Hey, how are you doing?" and say, "Nice to see you." Cruise is a private man, but he's always very polite, and he makes the time.
You've received a bit of criticism for dealing with people who earn their money in various unethical ways. How do you resolve that in your own mind?
I just don't pay any attention to it because it's a lie. The Telegraph published an article claiming that I'm the chosen photographer for African dictators, but that's just not true. I don't go to countries where they'll shoot me. I don't care how much money they've got. I'm not going to Iran or Iraq or any of those places where they'll shoot me. Even Saudi Arabia is very closed. A royal family member has to approve my visa to get in, and then I would be in a compound; they're not going to let me wander around. So that's all fine. Dubai and the United Emirates are just about as Westernized as you could possibly get. So that's all OK. But I wouldn't deal with some crazy dictator. I wouldn't do it.
Do you like your job?
Look, I'm one of the most fortunate human beings who has ever walked the planet. I wanted to do this from the age of 20, and much to my parents' disappointment, I'm still doing it today. I just love taking photos. In fact, the only time I'm really happy is when I'm taking pictures.
Also, check out more of Nick Gleis's work on his website.