August 18, 2014

Flying High with Alexander Heilner

This fall, we're excited to be offering a range of brand new workshops. One of the most interesting new additions is our Aerial Photography intensive with Alexander Heilner. We recently talked with Alex to discuss the inspiration, creative perspectives, benefits, and challenges of photographing from high above the earth.

© Alexander Heilner

How did you get started in aerial photography?
"Well, from the day I was born all the way through high school, my dad worked for TWA, so one of the constants in my childhood was a lot of travel, and a lot of looking out airplane windows. I also started in photography very young; I did it all the way through high school and college. So I think these two interests were bound to collide at some point. The first time I hired a small plane, I did it almost as a lark. I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and we basically just looked in the phone book, found a pilot and decided to give it a try that afternoon. I was really surprised by the fact that it's not as outrageously difficult or expensive as people might think. I dabbled in it for a while, and started doing it more frequently, and more seriously, from about 2006 on."

What do you find fascinating or intriguing about photographing from the sky?
© Alexander Heilner
"What's most interesting to me is the relationship between artificial infrastructure and the natural environment. It's conceptually interesting because of the economic and environmental issues, and I often examine how humans impact our natural environment, and vice-versa. But it's not only conceptual; many of these human-built structures are also visually striking. Sometimes that's intentional, like the artificial islands in Dubai that have been built to look like palm fronds. Other times it's unintentional, and it's fascinating how something quite pedestrian can become really intriguing when it's abstracted. For example, a single highway winding through a remote landscape becomes about the geometry of that line, or rows of canals dug into the land turn into shapes and patterns. I'm really drawn to the fringes—the edges where urban and natural environments meet."

Why should terrestrial photographers give this a try?
© Alexander Heilner
"Viewing the world from above really changes how we see things, and makes ordinary sights more interesting. We may know rationally what something is, but when we see it from above, we see it in a new way; we may even be amazed by it, and start to ask questions about it. That awareness and interest in looking at things differently continues once you're back on the ground, and for me that's a big part of what's exciting about aerial photography."

Why do you want to teach this workshop?
"I love, love, love teaching! I've taught for a living for many years and I really enjoy being in the classroom with people. For me, teaching and making art are born of the same impulse. It's about recognizing something I find interesting and exciting and wanting to share it with other people. Hopefully, they will find it interesting and exciting too. With art, it's seeing something intriguing and creating an image for people to look at. With teaching, it's sharing a method, or a way of seeing. Both are ways of giving, and sharing my experience with other people. 

For aerial photography specifically, I want to show that it's easier and more accessible than people think. I mean, people are sometimes in awe that I'm doing this, and they really shouldn't be. It's not rocket science! And for the parts of it that are challenging... I can help them get the practice they need and set them up with the skills to do it on their own."

© Alexander Heilner

Why photograph over Santa Fe?
"Santa Fe has a variety of landscapes: remote highways, railroads, mountains, forests, arroyos, rivers, the desert, and of course the city itself. A lot of what we photograph will depend on what participants are interested in. I'm really looking forward to different people's aesthetics leading us in different directions. 

Also, for people who are coming from a place that's visually very different, at first it can be overwhelming to find yourself in this endless desert. But it's a great opportunity to practice narrowing and focusing your attention to see what's really there. Again, it's all about changing your perspective and how you see."

What can people expect from this workshop?
"This workshop will really be a combination of practical skills and aesthetic exploration. There's the logistics of doing this kind of work—getting up there, how you need to adjust your technique, how you photograph from a moving vehicle, how you work in additional dimensions you're not used to, and so on. Then there are the creative aspects—considering what you're saying with your images; whether you shoot straight down or at an angle with the horizon; and what makes a beautiful or interesting aerial photograph. Honestly, the real skill in this work is learning to engage the logistical opportunities and limits in order to serve your conceptual goals. As far as where we'll go and what we photograph, that's going to be determined at least in part by the participants and what they are interested in photographing."

Is there anything else you want to tell people that are considering your Aerial Photography intensive?
I hope participants come into this with a sense of adventure and ready to explore together. I expect we'll learn as much from each other as everyone learns from me. 

Interested in taking your photography higher? Join Alex for his Intensive: Aerial Photography in Santa Fe, October 16-18, 2014.

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