As the Camera Flies

Vincent Laforet/finest.laforetvisuals.com

New York City has been photographed from nearly every vantage point: sweeping panoramas, up close in detail, and from high above. But few images have captured the city’s density and sprawl, its tightly packed grid, its constellation of yellow and neon colored lights, and its changing skyline quite like Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Vincent Laforet’s recent aerial series, Night Over New York.

Commissioned by Men’s Health magazine for a piece on psychology, Laforet proposed chartering a helicopter and shooting the city from high altitude. “I always thought the streets of New York look like brain synapses,” said Laforet. As a native New Yorker, who grew up enthralled by the cityscape, this assignment also presented a unique opportunity to photograph his home from a different perspective, one that is “between a satellite view and street view.” Laforet, however, is not new to aerial photography. He has shot wildfires in California, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and beach scenes at Coney Island from high above.

   
Laforet took these aerial photographs on a clear winter’s night from a helicopter hovering at 7,500 feet. With the exception of some added saturation and highlights, the images are untouched.
 

Before soaring thousands of feet in the air, he needed clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and air traffic control towers. Once he received the green light, he flew up in an open-door helicopter, 7,500 feet above the city, balancing 20 pounds of camera equipment. The images, explained Laforet, are the culmination of a perfect storm: a perfectly clear winter night, today’s advanced technology, and an intuitive sense for a visually compelling picture.

“They are just photographs of the city but from a unique angle and it seems like the city takes on a different importance and you can almost feel the energy of the city,” said Laforet.

 
 

The 50-plus images provide a myriad of views that at once convey the expansive breadth of the city and the concentration and individual character of the buildings that populate Manhattan’s intricate network of streets and avenues. One of the more salient aspects of this series, from an architectural standpoint, is the shifting scale of the city, marked by new construction in the last few years. In one picture, as we look down from above Central Park toward downtown, we glimpse a cluster of new and old skyscrapers jutting up toward the sky between 57th Street and Herald Square; from there, the landscape flattens as the buildings and the streets get smaller and more compact, branching off from the grid in Lower Manhattan, and then narrowing at the very tip, punctuated by SOM’s towering One World Trade Center. Revealed in these photos is the tension between the transience of the city and our own illusive fixed image of the iconic skyline. Some new additions posed a challenge for Laforet, specifically Rafael Vinoly’s recently erected monolithic 432 Park Avenue. “It ruins the skyline and almost every aerial I shoot,” said Laforet.

   
 

This entire project was completed and posted in a short period, which didn’t allow time for retouching. Aside from sensors that pick up light, and adding some saturation and highlights, little was done to the photographs.

Working off the momentum of this series, Laforet is embarking on a multi-city tour from San Francisco to Tokyo, to capture these metropolises at night. “These pictures speak to how big the city is, how massive it is, and how connected and small we are,” said Laforet.

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