Adriel Heisey takes pictures of landscapes that might as well be on other planets. Most of us have seen what the land looks like from an airplane--but not Heisey's airplane, a custom-built ultralight with a control stick that straps to his right leg. With both hands free to hold his camera, Heisey flies low and slow over remote, otherworldly locations in the Southwest, capturing geographic tricks of color, light, shadow and form that none of us will ever see through the tiny, scratched-plastic windows of a DC-10.
Heisey, who will give a multi-media presentation at the Thursday night opening of a year-long exhibit of his work at the University of Colorado-Boulder's natural history museum, says he's always had "a deep desire to be in the sky." Taking flying lessons in high school, he discovered that all the daydreams he'd had about flying when he was a child "were quite valid," and halfway through college, it became clear that he wanted to work in the sky. So Heisey scrapped his plans to become an English teacher and graduated instead from a professional pilot training program. He spent sixteen years as a flight instructor--always with a camera on board. He wanted to make paintings of aerial landscapes, he explains, and took pictures "simply as kind of a sketchbook to record fleeting scenes of interest that I would plan to later incorporate into paintings."
When Heisey moved to the Southwest in 1984 for a job as a pilot for the Navajo Nation, though, his photography really took off. "Most people don't realize that the Navajo Nation has a flight department," he says. "All the departments of the tribal government have access to three airplanes that the tribe owns, and there's a staff of pilots and maintenance people. It's very much like other corporate or executive flight operations. Sometimes we would fly tribal biologists who were tracking radio collars on bears and doing population counts on deer in the mountains, which was very rugged flying. Sometimes we would take officials into very remote places, flying a single-engine airplane that could land on virtually nothing more than wide dirt roads near the chapter house for chapter meetings. We would fly the tribal president across the country to Washington, D.C., or to meet with corporate executives in Minneapolis or Seattle."
But it's clearly the exquisite, desolate beauty in and around Arizona, Utah and New Mexico's 25,000-square-mile Navajo reservation that most inspired him. "I was seeing things that were so dramatic and so pure in form--and also just the sheer quantity of what I was seeing--I began to look at photography as an end to itself," Heisey says. "I saw that I could begin to craft the photographs into the works of art that I had hoped to do as paintings." Heisey got a better camera, paid more attention to his film choices and started considering all the nuances of making photographic images. He also began "looking pretty critically at the machine, the vehicle that I was using. That's when I began looking at ultralights. I spent about a year researching the different choices--and satisfied myself that safety was pretty assured if one was careful--and built my own plane."
That particular creation is "definitely skeletal," Heisey says. "I think of it as a minimalist flying machine. That's frightening to some people, but it's also a liberation because there's really nothing about it that isn't absolutely essential. It's very simple, and those are features that I use to the greatest advantage for making art. Ultimately, the tools you use as an artist need to become transparent--they need to do their job and get out of the way of the process, and that's what this airplane does for me. In the finest moments, the plane is just part of my body. I find myself going to the places in space that I need to be to get the images that I want to make."
Heisey says he's been up over the Rockies at 15,000 feet, "but for the kind of images that I like to make--which are very intimate--generally I go to the other end of the scale, 500 feet or below, often quite less." If there's an airport nearby, Heisey will use it, but he can also take off and land on dirt roads or smooth open fields. The plane folds up, and he hauls it on a trailer to the backcountry, where he camps and flies and takes pictures for several days. The results have ended up on the cover of National Geographic and in fine-art galleries throughout the West.
"The photographs arise out of experiences that are very personal and powerful that I have in seeing the earth this way," Heisey says. "I can trace those experiences back to my earliest flights, looking down and seeing entire networks of things--and I'm thinking mainly of natural things, like stream channels--and feeling as if I was seeing something alive, something living. When you're on the ground, your perspective is limited for that kind of wholeness. But in the air, it just leaps out. It's always a special event to see the earth this way--and yet it's always there. That just kind of haunts me, and my photographs are a way of dialoguing with that mystery."
Mindscapes: The Aerial Photography of Adriel Heisey, through December 31 at the CU Museum of Natural History, 15th & Broadway, Boulder; opening reception January 28, 7-9 p.m., 303-492-6892.