I'm riding shotgun in a surprisingly roomy helicopter cockpit with Vincent Laforet, one of the foremost practitioners of DSLR video, over New York City. I've never ridden in a helicopter. The asphalt below fades from black to grey.
* * *
It's the first of July, but a weird cold snap has left me shivering. I walk with my knees almost locked in place, that kind of fast robot walk I only ever see in New York. I really don't want to be late.
It's also chilly because it's 4:30 in the morning. The Empire State Building is turned off, like the last human being has finally gone to sleep. Behind the sanitation trucks lining the gross industrial stretch of West 30th St. leading to the heliport, the sky is fading into orange and yellow behind inky clouds, from the ground up. Sunrise. That's what we're chasing.
Vincent Laforet is the accidental dean of DSLR video. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the New York Times in what might as well have been a former life. Canon's 5D Mark II set Laforet on a totally different path. His short film "Reverie" was the first ever made with the 5DMkII, heralding a new era of amateur filmmaking. Suddenly, a $2,700 camera—now, a $1,000 camera—could produce stunning, professional-looking video in insane lighting conditions once too challenging for consumer equipment. Vincent became a filmmaker. He's won a Gold Lion at Cannes in the 57th International Advertising Festival. (One of his pet projects at the moment is "Beyond the Still", a user-generated HDSLR film—they're looking for entrants for the final two chapters.)
I'm tagging along on a now-rare aerial photo shoot of New York City, Vincent's first in nearly six months. The magazine jobs that paid for precious time in the air have dried up. So he moved from New York to L.A. a year and a half ago, and shoots mostly video.
"So how does it feel to kind of leave photography behind?" I ask.
"I didn't leave photography, it left me. I'll be back when the economics are."
If you've seen some of Vincent's still work, it's likely his tilt-shift photography, which renders sweeping cityscapes or crowds as miniature—real buildings take the look of models, as if painstakingly crafted by an obsessive retiree with nothing but idle time.
Sunrise is at 5:22 a.m. Sun Seeker, an app tucked into a folder on Vincent's iPhone 4 dubbed "Sun & Moon," along with a half dozen others like Focalware and Lightfinder, tell us when and where the sun's going to show up.
It's already 5 a.m., so we don't have a lot of time. His assistant, Mike Isler, is readying gear while Vincent and I yammer about print media's apparent terminal illness. Three camera bodies—two 1Ds Mark IIIs, for resolution, and one 1D Mark IV, for speed, along with a Think Tank filled with so many lenses I lose track, a battery of telephotos and tilt shifts. Mike hands me an f2.8 24-70mm—the wide angle will make it much easier to shoot Vincent at work in the confines of the twin-engine AS355's front seat.
We have to go now.
There is no door in front of me. No shield of glass and metal to stop me from tumbling to my death if my seatbelt comes unbuckled. Vincent is in the back, wearing a full-body harness—a lesson learned after a near-death experience shooting post-Katrina New Orleans—his legs hanging over the side of the helicopter. I'm handed a headset. "Put the mic over your mouth to talk into it. But don't say anything." I don't utter a word for the entire hour-long flight. I'm afraid a single ill-timed syllable could override life-or-death barking from LaGuardia air traffic controllers with thick New York accents, sending us pirouetting to our doom.
We wobble upward. The Hudson River is suddenly below us. Then New York. And I realize instantly why a helicopter is the perfect vehicle for capturing a city in pictures: the scale. Down on the ground, in the thick of it, it's claustrophobic and infinite, our vision consumed by a handful of tiny blocks and buildings, like ants in a cornfield. From a plane, 30,000 feet in the air, it's zoomed out, too tiny and insignificant to absorb. But from a helicopter, hovering 100 feet above the river, or tens of stories from the trees of Central Park, your eyes can consume the whole city, but still feel its endless sprawl.
We cut across midtown, and there's the money shot: The sun arcing behind the Empire State Building. Through my lens, it looks like the inside of a Cadbury Creme Egg, if the creme were lit up like an atom bomb.
We almost hover in the same spot for ten minutes, inching closer with the kind of subtlety ninja would appreciate. Then we beat back down the coast of the island, ringing the tip and back up. I'm essentially frozen in place, occasionally pointing my camera toward the back of the helicopter to shoot. (Thanks, Live View.) That's where all of the movement is. Vincent calls out cameras and lenses to Mike, who's sitting next to him. Lens off, lens on. Camera to Vincent. Repeat. Mike occasionally points out potential shots to Vincent: "I think the light looks good over there."
As we pass one of the unpleasant necessities of an urban landscape—a sanitation plant—Vincent keeps shooting and utters the Starbucks cup quote of the day, "That's the real art in photography: making shit look good."
After an hour in the air, strafing the city at a slow, steady pace, the sun unabashedly reminds us it's time to go home. I've taken hundreds of photos with my lone camera. I couldn't guess how many Vincent has shot with three bodies. (He tells me later he shot 2468 frames. Christ.)
After we land, Vincent cracks open a black plastic case that stayed closed during the flight. It must house government secrets or unicorn eggs. "What's inside this case is worth almost $30,000," he says.
Six circles are cut into steel-colored foam. Lenses. Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 lenses, to be precise. ($24,000 worth, it turns out.) "Brand new, still hard to get. Some people would kill for these. We're going to use them when we go up again tonight." He has two more shoots planned for the day—one in the afternoon, and another that night.
"So, what's next?" I ask.
I can't actually tell you what's next for him, not yet. But it's pretty exciting. Another return to stills, in a way, since photography is what he loves the most. But before that, a less ambitious project:
"Wanna grab breakfast?"
Vincent's photos from the shoot below