Adriel Heisey

Adriel Heisey in flight over Santa Fe, 2015. Photograph by Adriel Heisey.
with Maxine McBrinn

Maxine McBrinn, curator of archaeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, traveled to Window Rock, Arizona, to talk with Adriel Heisey about MIAC’s exhibition Oblique Views: Archaeology, Photography and Time.


Heisey is an aerial photographer known for his sumptuous views of the Southwest and for beautiful and informative photographs of archaeological sites. For Oblique Views, the result of a collaboration with Archaeology Southwest, Heisey was asked to rephotograph places first photographed from the air in 1929 by Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The Lindbergh photographs were commissioned by A. V. Kidder and other scholars at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who recognized the scientific value of aerial photography in archaeological research. In Oblique Views, Heisey’s photographs are displayed side-by-side with those of the Lindberghs, revealing subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the landscape that have taken place since 1929. The exhibition features seventeen pairs of photographs of sites and communities in Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, and the northern Rio Grande. It runs through May 2017.

McBrinn: Adriel, how and why did you start taking aerial photographs?

Heisey: My original impetus was mainly to see the world from above. There was a very early synergy between my flying activities and my picture-making. Even though I didn’t get serious about taking photographs from the air until later in my career, the primary motivation was there pretty much from the start.

Eventually my flying turned into more charter flying, where I was flying paying passengers on trips to various destinations. Occasionally one of the legs on the flight was empty, and that’s when I began getting more serious with the technical challenges of making a good photograph from the air. That continued during the other changes in my life that resulted in my moving to the American Southwest, where some of my flights for the Navajo tribal government had legs that were empty. That gave me a sense of freedom to begin experimenting more, pushing the limits a little more, and it was a very iterative process. The more I took photographs in those situations, the better results I had.

As I reviewed those photographs more and more critically, I was not only delighted by what they yielded, I was also confronting the limitations: how could they be better? I quickly came up against the barrier of the aircraft itself, because in most cases I was shooting through Plexiglas, through the window, and I was going much faster than I would have wanted to go. I finally came to the conclusion that I needed my own airplane, and it needed to be chosen specifically for aerial photography. That’s when I decided to build an aircraft.

I was thirty-one years old. That was a serious undertaking, because I built an entire flying machine whose sole purpose in life was to take me up for photographs. I remember that sense of commitment. It was not unlike getting married. Like, “This is the person, this is the thing that I want to commit my life to,” and I did. I wasn’t married at the time. I lived at the airport. A year and a half later, I had my own flying machine. It was a dream come true to have my own access to the sky, where and when I wanted.

There is no place you can go to school for learning to be an aerial photographer, especially if you’re the pilot. After a few years of learning as much as I could by trial and error and experimenting with different strategies, I felt like I had honed the process very well to where my limitations now were not so much technical but more in the realm of my own imagination. Of course that’s where an artist wants to be.

McBrinn: Some might ask you why you so often focus your photography on archaeological sites.

Heisey: I do focus on archaeological sites, but not to the exclusion of other subject matter. The truth is that the majority of my archive of photography is not archaeological. My first love in doing this work was the natural landscape itself. That kicked into high gear when I moved to the Four Corners from Pennsylvania, where I had lived up to that point. As I began flying here in the Four Corners, with Window Rock as my point of origin, it revealed itself as a world-class landscape— the topography, the weather, the seasonal changes were all spectacular. As an artist, they were so engaging to me. That was what I worked on for a number of years, almost exclusively. I became familiar with a lot of the landscape that is not near roads. It never ceases to amaze me how much land is out there that most people don’t know even exists. But to see it for yourself firsthand from above, you realize what a treasure there is out there that is completely invisible from the highways, which is our usual means of access.

But in the course of all of that, I became more aware of the human landscape as well, as if the glare of the beauty of the natural landscape began to subside enough that I could begin to see what else was there. I had some friends who were archaeologists, and they helped grow my awareness of what I was seeing from the sky and how special these places were. Because they were so unlike anything else that was out there. And they were older than anything else that you could see that was human-made, and they were still remarkably well preserved in many cases.

Soon after I moved to Tucson, I joined forces with Archaeology Southwest; they were able to help inform my efforts by their vast knowledge of the landscape and significant places, places that were possibly under threat from development, and show the general public the true beauty of these places, which are sometimes in danger of going away if we don’t take steps to protect them. We ended up collaborating in many ways to the great benefit of both myself and the organization.

McBrinn: What role did you play in the Oblique Views exhibition?

Heisey: Oblique Views was again the result of the collaboration between Archaeology Southwest and myself, and it happened on the back of another project that we were working on together, called From Above: Images of a Storied Land, an exhibition that opened in May of 2004 at the Albuquerque Museum. The exhibition consisted of my aerial photographs of archaeological sites of all types from around the American Southwest and northern Mexico. Archaeology Southwest became aware of the Lindbergh photographs that were made in 1929 in this area. It was their idea to find them and rephotograph the best of the lot.

There are certain challenges inherent in doing any rephotography from the air. You can’t find the exact spot on the ground that a photograph was taken a hundred years ago or whatever. Yet I was willing to engage the challenges. I had the tools and skills to do it. With such a slow-flying, low-flying aircraft that was so maneuverable, I was able to spend the time necessary to find the theoretical point in space from which an old photograph might have been taken and to duplicate it.

It’s definitely somewhat of a clumsy process because you’re working in three dimensions. There’s no frame of reference to tell you precisely where you are, other than a number on an instrument panel. We don’t have those numbers from the Lindberghs. A lot of it boils down to being able to fly slowly enough to have the time to do that as precisely as possible and to not spend a fortune while doing it.

McBrinn: How does it feel to follow the Lindberghs in documenting these places?

Heisey: It’s a difficult thing to put into words because it is so experiential. Flying itself is in essence experiential. When you do it, you engage in an activity that is not normal for human beings to do. I can only imagine what it must have been for them to be in such a remote area of the country in an aircraft that wasn’t nearly as reliable as what I used. The roar of the engine and the open cockpit. The fact that they were so far afield from their home environment and doing something so new.

Yet there I am all these decades later, right exactly in that place. It’s really creatively a whole different enterprise to duplicate someone else’s view and to get that precisely right. There is something, as in any body of work, that happens when you have a whole body of work that comes together that’s built on that principle. That’s what makes the exhibition truly something to experience and behold, because all of these multiple elements come together for their cumulative effect on the viewer. I’m delighted to be able to contribute to that process.

McBrinn: Is there anything in particular that you noticed while working with the Lindbergh images?

Heisey: It’s been a multidimensional delight for me to work with the Lindbergh images. I can inhabit the delight and wonder that they must have felt to fly around and locate these places. When you arrive to a general location, you’re looking all around and you’re saying, “It must be here somewhere.” Your eyes settle down. You resolve more and more detail. All of a sudden, something jumps out. You realize, “Oh, look! That’s it.” The world transforms in that instant because you bring now everything that you’ve carried with you in terms of your knowledge, what you’ve been told about it, what you’ve heard about it, to the thing that you’re seeing there right in front of you.

To reach for the camera, take it out, and record that moment is a very natural instinct. We call those grab shots, where you grab the camera, grab the shot because you’re there and it’s there. I see a bit of that in their images. Often, the horizon is askew. Even if you don’t see the horizon, you can tell that the camera is canted as it took the photograph. Sometimes, there are edges or corners of the image that are overexposed or underexposed or they’re blurry from movement. All of those are signs of a, let’s say, hastily made photograph. I can feel the vividness of that moment in looking at those qualities of their images.

There are other times when I feel as if maybe it wasn’t as turbulent. They had the luxury of a little more distance from a subject. Obviously, one of them was flying and one of them was photographing. The tasks were divided. It seemed as if the images were more carefully constructed.

Looking back, every image they took is inherently precious, because it’s so old and it’s from a world that we will never be in again. I love to ponder some of their images where we are not sure of the location that they were made in. That ambiguity, that invitation is very provocative to me.

McBrinn: What was your process for taking a contemporary photograph to match one of the Lindberghs’ original photos?

Heisey: It begins with studying the image carefully, as if I were there in space at that moment—the time of day and the relationship of three-dimensional objects to each other. What direction are they looking? It’s a little more challenging to decide what the altitude would have been and the distance from the subject.

The location that I photographed most recently for the project was the Santa Clara Pueblo. I went through all these steps of studying that image in my studio carefully before I left the ground and deciding on what time of day roughly I would like to be there. What direction from the pueblo I would need to be and how high I would be. The answers to those questions all were such that it felt like a very minimal intrusion on the world of the pueblo itself as it is today, which was definitely a concern. My plane is relatively quiet, especially when I’m working, because I’m flying slowly. Then the rest happens in the air at the moment that I make the photograph.

Lately I’ve been working with the Lindbergh photographs printed out as simple black-and-white copies. I have them in a binder, and I can leaf through the binder to the different photographs I’m rephotographing. I have that propped in the cockpit so that I can constantly be looking back at it. The truth is, I can’t stop the plane and set up a tripod in the sky. There’s a moment that the image seems to be most successful. I have that opportunity, then it’s gone, I’m out of it. Even though I’m only going 48 mph, it still passes in a matter of seconds. I slowly circle around. As I’m doing that, I’m looking at the screen on my camera. If it’s very windy or turbulent, it’s very difficult to have precise control. Sometimes I get lucky. There’s really not a lot of forgiveness in the image. You have to get it pretty much right or it’s going to be quite obvious
that you didn’t.

McBrinn: You were photographing Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly well before this project. What draws you to these places?

Heisey: Maxine, sometimes I feel I’ve lived too long to be able to have any concise, coherent answer to a question like that. On one level, it’s obvious what draws anyone to these places. The spectacular beauty and the significant prehistoric occupation, the sheer phenomenon of human beings making a living in a place like this. At the most basic level, [it’s] the inherent intrigue of aerial imagery and aerial experiences. The opportunity to see things in a different way. It’s that basic.

I realize through that range of experience that there is no one identity of these places. They are as complex and multifaceted in their character as any human being. Anyone who has lived in an intimate relationship with another human being knows that you never get to the bottom of understanding who that person is. I feel that way about these locations.

When you begin to factor in the elements of geology and ecology and all the dimensions of human occupation, the contemporary and prehistoric signature of human usage as a landscape from the air, you realize you have an infinite subject in front of you. You can go as far and as deep into it as you care to go. It will never be exhausted.

They are austere, beautiful, dramatic locations, in terms of their geography. They also have a long, rich history of human occupation. To see human beings today, continuing to do that. Knowing that down there are the homes and fieldhouses and fields of people like us who have access to some of the same technologies that we do. And yet they still choose to be in such a remote, seemingly difficult location. To craft their lives out of those basic elements. It’s a wonder to behold.

McBrinn: How did photographing still-occupied places like Santa Fe and Santa Clara Pueblo differ from those sites that are no longer lived in?

Heisey: Prior to doing the rephotographs of Santa Fe and Galisteo and Santa Clara, I hadn’t done locations for the Lindbergh project that were contemporary communities. One thing is a self-consciousness that anybody down there can watch me and see what I’m doing. There’s a wonderful luxury as an aerial photographer in photographing remote locations like many of these ruins, because I know that there is virtually no living human being down there. I feel as though I have the place to myself.

There’s that dimension. Another is that all of the handles, as it were, that will allow people to compare the rephotograph to the original Lindbergh photograph are much more vivid and familiar and plentiful at these contemporary communities. There’s going to be much more identification from the viewer with what’s in the photograph. There’s a richness in that that’s delightful. Anybody can go out and take a photograph, for example, of the city of Santa Fe from the air, but to do one that is precisely to match one that is over eighty years old is something truly special.

Another aspect is that there is more of a sense of documenting history. The Lindbergh images were a moment in time that has long since passed, and I have the understanding that the photograph I make today will someday also be a moment in time that will have long since passed. That sense of creating an artifact from this time and this place feels like a very small contribution to make in history.

McBrinn: You choose to photograph places that were not necessarily documented by the Lindberghs. Where would that be?

Heisey: I almost certainly have the largest archive of aerial imagery of Chaco and its features that exists. Yet I haven’t seen or photographed all of them. The longer that list gets, of places that I have seen and photographed, the more I feel the appetite to continue working the list on out to completion. There are certain places, certain ruins that I have yet to photograph. I am not sure how meaningful they would be to anyone else except maybe a Chaco archaeologist.

By the same token, I have discovered a few places that haven’t been recorded, and there’s nothing that compares with the excitement of that. It contributes not only a sense of adding to the wealth of knowledge and understanding that we have about a world that is long past. But also it changes my sense of the landscape that I live and work in, in much the same way as being out and coming upon a wild animal.When I am out in a place and I am alone and I am not armed and I don’t have dogs and I hear the cry of a mountain lion. Then I find it, I see it; it changes the way I feel about the landscape to know that there is a major predator out there, who could have me for dinner. The world out there no longer seems quite so innocent and benign as it did before I knew that was there.

It’s the same way with finding a new archaeological site—in the case of last summer, [a] major Chacoan great house with roads and associated earthworks. Not that I discovered it, but these archaeologists who did discover it hadn’t told anyone else about it except their close archaeologist friends. This was a moment of resonance with the Lindberghs’ experience. I made a series of wonderful images of this Chacoan location that is a hundred-plus miles from Chaco Canyon. I haven’t shown them to anybody. They have simply been created and carefully set aside. Their day will come, I’m sure. They are not something that I want to advertise, but there’s that sense that I’m sure the Lindberghs had of contributing to an effort that’s much larger than any one person. To keep building this understanding of something that is steadily disintegrating away in our very midst.

McBrinn: Is there anything that you would like to say that I have not asked you?

Heisey: When I first saw the larger collection of Lindbergh aerial photographs at the Palace of the Governors, I realized, as we all did, that purely as photographic images, they weren’t genuinely anything special. That paled immediately [because] of why they were special, which was that they are so old. In other words, they’re very important historical documents. They didn’t need to be great photographic images, per se, to be something very special and important. In that sense, it was a wonderful and unique opportunity for me to enter into that  body of work as a participant and a contributor. To offer something new that enhances it and have the audience pretty much ready-made and already sitting on the edge of their seats to see what is it going to be. It reminds me that in many ways, no photograph really has much of a life until it’s responded to by a viewer. How wonderful to have so many people ready to look at these images together!

Individually, the Lindbergh image or my image may not be anything special as photographic images. Together, they become something quite exceptional to experience. To have that to offer to the general public and to contribute to the flow of history has been a truly unique and wonderful opportunity in my career.

Maxine E. McBrinn is curator of archaeology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology. Previously she worked in a curatorial role at the Field Museum in Chicago and at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and specializes in Southwestern archaeology.