Photographer Vincent Laforet captures mega-cities from 12,000 feet

Published 9th November 2015
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Photographer Vincent Laforet captures mega-cities from 12,000 feet
Written by Eoghan Macguire, CNN
Vincent Laforet is taking photographs from seven angles at the CNN Republican debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday, December 15. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET.
It's the world's greatest cities as they've seldom been seen before. Big, bustling, buzzing, bright -- yet hauntingly peaceful and intimate. Photographer Vincent Laforet spent early 2015 edging out of a helicopter door at vertigo-inducing heights of up to 12,000 feet photographing the likes of New York, Las Vegas, London, Sydney and Barcelona as night settled.
The result is "AIR," a new book that compiles the best and most spectacular aerial images captured throughout the project. For Laforet, it was a thrilling experience and one that offered some surprising perspectives.
"When you are in any of these metropolitan areas on a street level, you feel a lot smaller and isolated," Laforet told CNN over the phone from New York. "You are overwhelmed by the noise and the differences you see on the ground."
"But when you are above these cities at several thousand feet or several kilometers, somehow they feel much more within grasp. You definitely feel more connected to the city and the people within it. There's this energy that's almost palpable."

The living motherboard

Laforet was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography along with four other photographers at the New York Times in 2002 for the publication's coverage of post 9/11 events in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And although commissioned off the back of a wildly popular magazine article of pictures of New York earlier in 2015, AIR is a project that's been on Laforet's mind for more than 25 years. A French-American, Laforet has frequently traveled between the two countries via New York's JFK Airport since childhood.
"Every time I flew over an airport as a kid, or when you look out of (plane) windows at night you see this little world," he said. "The problem is you really can't feel it through the window on a plane."
"The streets of New York had always looked like either brain synapses, computer chips or motherboards to me. From high up all these streets become a sort of pattern and almost like an organism."
Laforet confesses that there is much about modern city life that frustrates him. That the same brands and chains now populate virtually every city, pushing out the mom-and-pop stores, is a particular aggravation.
Thousands of feet up in the air, however, he says most metropolises remain distinct from one another -- shaped by their varying history, geography and topography.
San Francisco has "some crazy patterns in it" because of all the hills while Las Vegas "just kept going forever with an incredible variety of colorful lighting," Laforet explained.
Further afield, Berlin offered a unique insight on recent European history due to the color of the street lights. "The former communist block is still dark yellow whereas the western block is much more bright and colorful.
"Even though the wall is gone, the lighting grid is still there," he said.

Cornucopia of color

The timing of the shoot is also a major factor in the uniqueness and strength of the images, Laforet believes. Camera quality has increased dramatically in recent years making photography at night much easier and the results more compelling.
Many major cities are also in the process of moving away from older sodium vapor lighting to more energy efficient LEDs which have a cooler color temperature.
"That contributes to this incredible variety of colors you are seeing in these pictures," Laforet said. "There are some very deep blues versus very deep yellows."
"When entire cities have been converted to entirely LED lighting, they'll go back to one specific color compared to this mix. We are seeing this cornucopia of colors that we may not see in five to 10 years from now."
Early followers of the AIR project have been able to follow glimpses of its progress online. Laforet estimates that his initial New York images have been viewed more than 40 million times after going viral earlier this year.
"What was interesting is that you would expect photographers and maybe technology lovers to be interested in this," Laforet said.
"We were finding that people's grandmothers and uncles, real estate agents and dentists or doctors were the ones that were just as excited as the expected audience."
Given the unique perspective the images offer and their relevance to everyone who lives in a city, that mainstream interest is perhaps understandable.
And as for his own favorite cities from above?
"I think Barcelona is one of my favorites because the grid pattern is absolutely perfect and speaks to its history. Las Vegas is fascinating just because you have this spot of light in total darkness."
"But the biggest surprise for me was London. It doesn't have a grid pattern, so for a photographer like me that's really looking for geography and patterns ... some sort of order ... London is nothing short of petrifying. The streets are all over the place but I think (there is) beauty in the chaos."