Photographer and filmmaker Vincent Laforet recently found himself in a position familiar to many professional photographers. After shooting New York City at night from a helicopter 7,500 feet in the air to illustrate the power connection and intersecting paths through the city’s grid system for a Men’s Health magazine article about coincidence, Laforet wanted to extend the project to other cities, but the magazine moved on to the next story, and Laforet no longer had the funding support.
Instead of shelving the project until another corporate funding deal came through, he took the initiative to add the "AIR" project to the multimedia story platform Storehouse.co and watched as social media spread the project across the Internet. A viral success, Laforet found himself with the opportunity to harness the public’s interest and has turned the first individual assignment into a crowd-funded series through presales of a series book, postcards and prints.
Laforet has now added Las Vegas and San Francisco to his "AIR" series, with more cities to follow. I recently caught up with Laforet who told me about the project’s inspiration and execution, and his plans moving forward.
DPP: What inspired the concept for the "AIR" series?
Vincent Laforet: It was kind of just one of the most amazing series of coincidences. I had been wanting to shoot these types of images. Since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, looking out of planes out of LaGuardia or LAX, you can always see these lines of streets and all the activity below. It’s very beautiful for anyone watching out of the window. And, obviously, these cameras came out in the past year or so that shoot in very high ISO and allow you to actually photograph this. I’ve really been waiting on the sidelines for capture technology to catch up to this desire of mine to shoot through the night.
DPP: You shoot a lot of aerials…
Laforet: I used to. That was back when I was an editorial photographer, which is almost, at this point, five years ago. I used to shoot a lot of aerials—National Geographic, for almost every magazine. But the industry has undergone a lot of change and can’t afford to do that anymore. On average, in the past three or four years, I’ve done one aerial assignment a year, maybe two. Now, I shot this for Men’s Health and published it there, and nothing really happened with it. Then I put it on this new platform called Storehouse, and it went absolutely crazy. Now I’ve been getting a tremendous amount of still photography jobs and offers as a result of this. I was ready to give up on photography because I make most of my living as a commercial director. I’m working on my first film next year, which is now being pushed because of this. So it’s one of those weird things where life has a way of telling you what you should be doing.
DPP: How did you hear about Storehouse, and why did you choose to use that platform as the format for sharing this project?
Laforet: The founder of Storehouse is Mark Kawano. I’ve known him since I worked as a consultant for Apple on Aperture. He used to work on that team. And he’s been talking to me about doing something like Storehouse for years, so when he did it, I was one of the first users.
DPP: What do you think made the images go viral on Storehouse versus another platform?
Laforet: I think it has everything to do with social media. I read magazines all the time online, so I think reading habits have changed. And I think Storehouse is a very elegant way of showing these images beautifully. It was really successful, and it just went completely crazy as other media became less relevant to people.
DPP: How was the experience of shooting "AIR" different than the other aerial shoots you’ve done?
Laforet: This is one of the most spectacular experiences in that there’s a really true sense of discovery. I’ve never seen these images shot before. We’ve done a lot of research and we haven’t found an instance of anyone photographing at night from that altitude, due to the simple fact that it probably was just not technically possible until this year. You go up with these veteran helicopter pilots who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years, and they’ll tell you, "I’ve never seen this." That’s a wonderful thing to hear because it’s really hard to discover an image in 2015 that no one has shot before. So there’s a genuine sense of discovery. The reaction is overwhelming and overall very positive. I’ve gone from planning on directing my film next year to putting that aside and traveling the world to photograph as many cities as I can. I think that’s an absolutely amazing thing.
DPP: What other cities are you planning to go to?
Laforet: Oh, you name it! We’re going to Europe in May, so London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam. And, in June, Australia for Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. And, of course, we’ll be going to São Paulo, Rio, Santiago, Dubai—you name it. We’re going to go around the world. We have sponsors like G-Technology, who have offered to fund the project. And, then, we’re preselling a book. And the beauty of that is, there’s nothing more beautiful than having the public fund this project. It’s one thing to go to a corporate sponsor, that’s great, but if I can set forth a model that other photographers can reproduce and have fans help fund the project by prepurchasing the book—it’s a win-win for everyone. That’s where the Internet comes full circle. You see a dwindling industry in terms of budget and business models; we s
hould also see there are new ones that are taking hold, and this would be a classic example of that—of someone just going on assignment, putting it on a social-media platform, and the next thing you know, it turns into a one- or two-year-long project funded by members of the public. And, that, to me, is the best outcome of these new technologies and platforms.
DPP: Is there something you’re hoping viewers take away from your images?
Laforet: I think the reason I called this "AIR" is because it’s not something that anyone owns. It’s something that we all share in. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. We all breathe the same air. We’re all responsible for it. And when you’re in New York City on 5th Avenue looking up at the skyscrapers, you seem very small and insignificant. When you’re up in the air looking down at the city, you have a sense of togetherness, and the world feels much more approachable and much more connected. I think people are having a visceral reaction to that. Aerial images have a way of showing you scale and make it much more tangible and much more personal. In an ironic way, it makes you feel more connected.
DPP: Do you take a different artistic point of view to each city to capture each place in a different way?
Laforet: I try to approach this just as I would each assignment from The New York Times. I try to identify what makes each city unique and capture that visually in the image. Every single city—the grid, the topography, the downtown, the height of the buildings—it’s unique. The lighting is unique. And my challenge is to try and capture the ethos. One of the ways to describe it that somebody else used is that, in many ways, the streets are like fingerprints, which I think is a really nice way of putting it. The grid and layout is the individual fingerprint for each city.
DPP: What gear are you using?
Laforet: I’ve been using several bodies. A Canon EOS 5DS, the new 50-megapixel camera. I’ve been using the 1D X because the high ISO really sees at night. And then I’ve tried a variety of medium-format backs, Phase One. And, more recently, I’ve used some of the new Zeiss optics that are specifically made to shoot wide open and are extremely sharp—the Otus.
DPP: Is it difficult using all of the equipment while being up so high in a helicopter?
Laforet: I have an assistant named Mike Isler, who I’ve been working with for a decade and who has been doing this with me for hundreds of hours around the world. He takes care of all the gear behind me, does all the lens swaps. It’s a very coordinated team effort. He’s also a pilot and a photographer, and we have a pretty good understanding of what to expect and how to do this by now. It’s a well-oiled machine. I can tell him what cameras and lenses I need, and I can focus on making the images.
DPP: When do you expect to have the book ready for publishing?
Laforet: We’re expecting to have the book published by the holidays at the end of this year, and it’s looking right on course. And we’re also doing other things, like lithographs and postcards. People are reacting very viscerally to this and asking to have prints made. That enables me to shoot more cities. Obviously, the $2,000 to $2,500 per hour for a helicopter is expensive, and it’s not something I can fund, and it’s not something magazines can afford to fund. The public can afford to fund it by buying a book, or from postcards or a lithograph—everybody wins. I want to go to more obscure cities, as many cities as possible. All the money we’re raising right now from the book pre-sales is going into production.