In aerial, studio and location photography Thomas Heinser has employed his aesthetic and technical expertise—as well as helicopters, cherry pickers and subtle, natural light—to create compelling landscape and portrait photography.
In Überblick, consisting of three ongoing bodies of work, photographer Thomas Heinser surveys from the sky the graphic intersection of nature and structure, of man and landscape—and recent changes to that landscape. Translated as “over-view or "view from above,” Überblick began as an aerial survey of feats of architecture and engineering and of images decoding the graphic 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. Skillful aerial rendering of the essential stillness and innate sculptural qualities of these settings, as well as revealing their subtleties, has led to critical recognition such as that from the San Francisco Examiner‘s Kenneth Baker, who finds a command of formalism in Heinser’s aerial photos that includes “lushness” and “compositional poise,” noting that his work “ looks at familiar terrain with a detachment that mere altitude cannot express…seeking meaning as much in the chance crisscross of ship and bridge, as in their familiar utility.”
Beginning in 2009 Heinser began to investigate the interaction of manmade 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 graphic, semiological elements. He extends our perceptions of these agents of everyday interactions, contemplating the concept of “bridging.”
This body of work includes views of some of the world’s most captivating 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 the Bay Bridge, which is near Heinser’s northern California home, while temporarily closed during construction of the new eastern span. His inspiration to photograph it was the antithetical emptiness of this perennially busy six-lane thoroughfare. 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 his 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,” is 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.
In documenting 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 changes to humans and land. 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 have cost lives, homes and tens of thousands of acres.
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 as well as documentation.
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 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.”
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 can also, however, affect the ponds.
The shallow manmade 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, marveling at their vibrant colors—magenta, green, blue, yellow and pink—resulting from microorganisms at varying salinity levels.
Indecipherable calligraphic carpets in bright hues, these quintessentially painterly images function as purely aesthetic abstractions. By isolating landscape elements from such a distance Heinser’s seemingly close-up capture paradoxically creates the look of a painting’s blown-up detail, of what seems thickly layered, paint-cracked impasto, yet photographed from hundreds of feet away 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.”