Überblick // Overview

Across aerial, studio and location photography, Thomas Heinser employs his distinctive aesthetic and technical expertise—not to mention helicopters, cherry pickers and subtle, natural light—to create a compelling body of landscape photography.

In Überblick, which consists of three ongoing bodies of work, photographer Thomas Heinser surveys the earth from above, finding the graphic intersection of nature and structure, of man and landscape—and recent changes to that landscape. The project, which is translated as “overview” or “view from above,” began as an aerial survey of feats of architecture and engineering. As it grew, Heinser began to see the images as a means of decoding the beauty of structures that serve man in crucial ways.

Heinser ended up reaching beyond this exploration to create a series at once aesthetic and, as a subtext, documentary in nature. Their essential stillness and innate sculptural qualities set them apart.


Beginning in 2009, Heinser began to investigate the interaction of man-made structures and landscape, specifically, aerial views of bridges, expressways and airport runways. In this series, he asks us to re-imagine these structures as more than arteries of action, depicting them as stand-alone semiological elements. He extends our perceptions of these agents of everyday interactions, contemplating the concept of “bridging” in a broader way.

This body of work includes views of some of the world’s most distinctive bridges, airport runways and architectural/functional structures, from Lisbon and Millau to New York and San Francisco.

Heinser picked each bridge for its potential to illustrate a specific point of view, although he emphasizes that his goal was not to describe but to photographically capture how these structures function as graphic subjects. The photos depict both large and small bridges, as well as empty ones, including a new span of the Bay Bridge, which was under construction when photographed. His inspiration to shoot it at this time was that its antithetical emptiness allowed him to see it with fresh eyes (it’s just next to his Northern California home after all). Here, we view it as a structure normally activated by presence but now defined by absence, a conduit created by man but temporarily devoid of usage.

Heinser says that he isn’t trying to address the concept of scale but in fact is trying to avoid it. “The way I use the aerial perspective,” he says “is by cutting out any horizon line, reducing landscape into more of a two-dimensional image. I try to avoid representing the dimensional aspect of landscape, and of scale altogether.”

Changing Landscapes

In documenting a terrain transformed by fire and drought damage, Heinser’s original interest was in reworking photographic language to describe the landscape. His concern about environmental change led him to document these changes in ways that bridge the binary of aerial distance and the poignant, on the ground realities that face humans and their contemporary lands. Some of these images, including one of bare pines and their shadows in the ashen landscape, are from Lake County, where in the fall of 2015 fires cost people their lives, homes and tens of thousands of acres.

All over the state, drought is reshaping California’s natural and agricultural landscape and restricting its water usage. Heinser’s engagement with these changes is a way of challenging photography’s borders.

From far above, houseboats floating on a lake look like abandoned refrigerators: the lake’s water level is now so low that the dock no longer leads to the shore. Groves of almond trees wither because their grower can’t afford to water them anymore. The ghostly, shadowy image of an old train bridge refers to its recent emergence after years of aquatic immersion. A curvy anthropometric patch of land is rendered as purely sculptural figure and form, its shape, rimmed by concentric rings, a record of earlier water levels.

Heinser’s response to these environments is to expand their meaning, to render them simultaneously as evidence of environmental impact but also to resist the limitations of geographical categories. “The mystery about the objects in the images, their not being ‘readable’ is what is important,” he says. “Looking at houseboats—you’re not necessarily recognizing them, until you closely look at the image. I’m interested in creating these kinds of patterns.”

“The difference between the conduits and this landscape work,” he adds, “is that with the landscapes I am reacting to a more organic shape—almost like body shapes. They summon an internal, connected-to-the-earth response.”

Salt Ponds

The Bay Area is home to some 8,000 acres of salt evaporation ponds, and site of one of only two sea salt works in the country. The clay soils and Mediterranean climate here traditionally provide ideal salt making conditions. Environmental changes disrupting the moderate rainfall characterizing this climate have also affected the ponds.

The shallow man-made ponds that extract salt from seawater deposits and naturally evaporate it are also protected wildlife refuge areas and an important component of the ecosystem. Algae and other microorganisms regulate water quality as well as anchor the local ecosystem and local marshes supporting more than a million shorebirds, waterfowl and other wildlife, including over 70 species of birds and several endangered species.

These evaporation ponds are something we only occasionally glimpse when approaching SFO, San Francisco international airport, marvelling at their vibrant colors—magenta, green, blue, yellow and pink—resulting from microorganisms at varying salinity levels.

But Heinser has gone a step further, transforming these oft-ignored ponds into indecipherable calligraphic carpets in bright hues. His quintessentially painterly images, drawing from a quotidian daily feature of the landscape, attain the level of purely aesthetic abstractions. By isolating landscape elements from such a distance, Heinser’s seemingly close-up captures paradoxically create the look of a painting’s blown-up detail. What seems like thickly layered, paint-cracked impasto, is in fact photographed from hundreds of feet up in the air. Heinser says, “the content is almost secondary to photography turning it into something else,” adding that he is “looking for a place of resolution” within these landscapes, one that has “a composition and order to it.”

—Doreen Schmid