Thing of California, and you probably think of the beaches of Southern California, the vineyards of Napa Valley, or the verdant Yosemite Valley. Thomas Heinser’s surreal photographs offer a look at the other California, one parched by drought. His aerial photographs of charred hillsides, depleted reservoirs, and barren salt ponds are not at all what you’d expect of a place nicknamed the Golden State.
El Niño has doused much of the state this winter and Sierra snowpack is as much as 121 percent of normal in places, but it isn’t enough to offset a drought that’s entering its fifth year. Heinser’s photos, part of an ongoing series Reduziert, is a reminder of just how arid things have been. The word is German for “reduced,” an apt description of what the dry spell has done to the landscape. “[It’s] about as minimalistic as it gets,” Heinser says.
The German photographer has spent the past three decades in California, which has gone through droughts before. But this one is especially brutal. The last two water years (which end on September 30) were the driest on record, and last saw the lowest Sierra snowpack ever recorded. Even with El Niño boosted rains in 2016, currently about 83 percent of California is under severe drought conditions, which in addition to decimating crops and draining reservoirs has led to some epic fires. Some 8745 wildfires consumed almost 900,000 acres last year alone.
Heinser was inspired to document the issue two years ago when he spotted a parched almond orchard while driving on Interstate 5 in the Central Valley. “It looked like a cemetery,” he says.
Heinser, who has been shooting aerial landscapes for about a decade, hired a pilot to fly him over the fields, lakes, and reservoirs of the Central Valley and the vast salt evaporation ponds on the southern end of San Francisco Bay. They set out each day just after sunrise, when the light casts long shadows. Buckled in tightly, Heinser shot from a helicopter with the doors taken off, using a pair of gyroscopes to stabilize a Hasselbad medium format camera with a Phase 1 digital back.
The photos border on the surreal. Lake McClure is etched undulating rings like a dirty bathtub, each indicating where the water level once stood. Barren fields are etched with patterns left by irrigation wheels and other equipment. Hillsides are charred by fires. “They’re amazing moon-like landscapes,” he says. As beautiful as the photos are, Heinser hopes they prompt reflection on California’s environmental future.
“It’s important to engage with environmental changes,” he says. “I don’t think we as humans can survive if we are not concerning ourselves with what we are doing to the environment.”
Reduziert is on view at the G16 Gallery in San Francisco through March 18.
SF Gate, SF photographer captures changing face of the land, Kimberly Chun, 2/3/2016
San Francisco photographer Thomas Heinser grew up in the coal-mining hamlet of Dinslaken north of Dusseldorf in Germany, so it’s ironic that now he’s up in the air regularly, hovering 800 to 1,600 feet above the ground in a rented helicopter and shooting the land below.
“I guess I wanted to get away from being underground,” he says, chuckling.
The photographer’s latest pursuit involves capturing geographical shifts and the effects of the drought in his adopted state, from the Bay Area’s multihued salt evaporation ponds to fire-devastated Lake County, which he shot shortly after air space was reopened. His newest photographs are on exhibit at Gallery 16 in “Reduziert,” which translates from German as “Reductive.”
Heinser, 57, got hooked on aerial perspectives while working as a commercial photographer, documenting the city for Levi Strauss in the early 2000s.
“In the course of developing a language for images, I started to reduce more and more what I was looking at,” he says. “Pretty early on, I started to shoot with no horizon, just straight on.”
Now using a medium-format digital Hasselblad camera, he shoots at a very precise time of day: five minutes before and after sunrise.
“It’s like when you take a picture of a person,” he explains. “Some of these landscapes, they do have a face, absolutely, as you are flying over. We start circling, and I’m not sure what it is, but there is something there, looking at me.”
Lensculture.com, Überblick: California Skies Photographs by Thomas Heinser, by Doreen Schmid
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."
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."
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."