Although large parts of Laforet’s new aerial images are blurred, other sections, like the distant skyscrapers in this nighttime aerial of Los Angeles, are sharp, crisp and detailed. To achieve such detail, Laforet told us that images like this one were captured using a medium-format camera system.
Vincent Laforet first fell in love with shooting aerials as a teenager while flying back and forth from New York City to visit his father, who lived in France. During those overnight flights, Laforet would stare out the window, mesmerized by the complex grid of flashing lights in the city below.
“I would get completely lost in the microcosms of life going on down there,” he recalls. “Nothing fascinated me more than flying at night because you could see all the cars’ headlights, and you could see a different level of activity than during the day. There’s so much movement in New York, and I would get completely lost in it.”
While gazing out of the plane’s porthole, Laforet would reach for his camera (a Nikon F3 film SLR, given to him by his father) and press it against the window for a snap. After getting the photos developed weeks later, he would look at the results in disbelief.
“They were terrible,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
The View From Above
These days, Laforet shoots stunning aerials from a helicopter without a window, or even a door, to block his lens, with his legs dangling off the side of the aircraft at altitudes of up to 12,000 feet. To keep from falling out as the helicopter darts above the skyline, Laforet is rooted to the interior by a full-body harness, his gear attached to him as well.
It’s a heck of a view, and one that Laforet has captured to the fullest, initially as a staff photographer for the New York Times, where he shot eye-popping photos of the city from on high. But the first aerial that Laforet became known for didn’t involve flying in a helicopter at all. It was for a story in the Times about the engineers who change the light bulb in the Empire State Building’s antenna.
For the shot, Laforet climbed to the very top of the antenna—1475 feet above the ground, to be exact—to capture the two engineers swapping in the new bulb below him. Perched in a 3-foot-wide crow’s nest without a harness as the wind whipped around him, Laforet shot seven frames of the scene on film. One of those images would become a spectacular front-page spread in the Times, and the legend of Laforet was born.
The photos earned Laforet the nickname “Spiderman,” as well as a reputation for being a fearless photographer who would go anywhere to get the shot. For the Times, he became the go-to guy for capturing artful images of the city from unusual perspectives, whether it’s an aerial view of skaters in Central Park’s Lasker Rink, their shadows appearing to create their own skating partners, or a shot from a helicopter of a well-dressed man walking atop a verdant patch of 1 Sutton Place South, seemingly unaware of the rush of traffic on the FDR Drive just below his feet.
After 9/11, Laforet was sent overseas to photograph the events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His work, which included tense portraits of Afghanis and Pakistanis on the brink of war, went on to earn him a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2002, an award he shared with four other New York Times photographers on similar assignments.
What many people may know Laforet best for, though, is his innovative work as a filmmaker. In 2008, his pioneering short film “Reverie” made a huge splash, largely because it showcased what you could do with a then-new piece of imaging technology: A DSLR that could also shoot high-definition video. In the case of “Reverie,” it was the ground-breaking Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and Laforet’s HD movie included an unforgettable sequence shot from—you guessed it—a helicopter high above New York City.
“I pretty much got the 5D Mark II to shoot ‘Reverie’ as a fluke,” he recalls. “I happened to walk into Canon’s office just when the boxes with the cameras arrived. At first, they said no. But I finally I begged or browbeat them into letting me use it over the weekend. I took three friends, and we shot ‘Reverie.’ We included one quick hour in the helicopter…as a sort of signature, if you will.”
The experience was life-changing for Laforet. “Suddenly, my name became known in the film world as well, and the film world had no clue of my photography career. I was catapulted into that world headfirst. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before.”
As an encore, Laforet was chosen by Canon to be one of four filmmakers to shoot with the company’s first cinema camera, the C300, in 2011. His film “Mobius” premiered at Paramount Studios at an event attended by Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Robert Rodriguez and J.J. Abrams. From there, Laforet was splitting his commercial work between both stills and video, earning three prestigious Cannes Lion awards for his commercial directing work along the way.
Air In Motion
Though the pandemic has largely grounded him of late, Laforet had begun an impressive new photography project before the coronavirus struck that combined his artistic sense with his technical ingenuity. Called Air in Motion, it’s an extension of his ongoing Project Air, which has taken him over some of the world’s great cities (London, Berlin, Barcelona, San Francisco, to name a few) to capture striking images of these metropolises at night. Air in Motion put a different spin on the project, quite literally.
Using a photographic technique that he declines to divulge fully, Laforet is able to add a feeling of movement to his night cityscapes. Both dazzling and (slightly) dizzying, the effect transforms the static shots into a dream-like carnival ride over the buildings and streets of New York City and Los Angeles. When viewing the photos, you feel as if you’re in the helicopter with Laforet as he circles city landmarks such as the Chrysler Building or flies over Central Park, the surrounding city lights a colorful, swirling blur.
“Photography has the power to show you the world as you’ve never seen it before, and sometimes photography can even surprise the photographer,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense that the one building is in focus, and everything else is twirling. When I look at these photos, I still find the result awe inspiring.”
Much like a magician who prefers not to reveal the secret of the trick, Laforet is coy about how he creates his Air in Motion images, but he’s quick to note that everything is done in-camera. The effect is not conjured in Photoshop during post-processing.
Here’s what he did tell us about the Air in Motion photos: The images were captured on Phase One’s 150-megapixel IQ4 medium-format camera system and the 102MP Fujifilm GFX 100 medium-format camera using mostly wide-angle lenses and some telephotos. They’re all exposures of several seconds, which is something that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off when shooting from a helicopter.
“Helicopters are the ultimate unstable platform, and these [photos] break the cardinal rule of shooting from one, which is never to shoot less than 1/500th or 1/1000th of second,” Laforet notes. “When you start rotating around an object [in a helicopter], that’s when the magic happens. It’s meditative; I’m just going with the flow. But if you hit a pocket of air or there’s a mistake on my part or on the part of the pilot, the image is ruined.”
He equates the process to a dance, suggesting that it’s a technique most wedding photographers would know. “Anyone who’s ever danced with a camera will know exactly what I did, especially if you’re pivoting around a couple. When I was 15, I would shoot weddings, and 30 years later, it all came back to me. But in this case, it’s like I’m taking the viewer on a dance with me around their favorite buildings. There’s an intimacy to it that’s very interesting to me.”
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Laforet had planned to shoot a full Air in Motion series of cities around the world and then, perhaps, a book, much like the five-year-old Project Air (laforetair.com). That’s all changed with the pandemic, however. Instead, he decided to release some of the work informally on his social media channels and see what the reaction would be. So far, it’s been ecstatic.
“In the middle of COVID, the news has been so depressing, and I got so downtrodden, I just thought I’d put these out there. It was just my way of sharing something special. And people have responded with bewilderment, shock and huge curiosity. It’s getting harder and harder to find new ways of shooting things. But people have reacted in a very visceral manner to these photos.”
No one, as of this writing, has figured out exactly how Laforet shot the Air in Motion images, but the comments and theories keep pouring in on Instagram and elsewhere.
“I enjoy not revealing it, not just yet. Once I tell you the trick, it’s not fun anymore. The beauty should be in the end result and in the experience of viewing the images.”
Naturally, now that he’s accomplished adding a sense of movement to still images, this multimedia artist must be thinking of how he can reverse-engineer the process to add the effect to shooting video, right?
“I’m working on it,” Laforet says with a chuckle. “Believe me, I’m working on it.”
You can view more of Laforet’s work on his website, vincentlaforet.com.