Photos

Photographing California at Its Most Diminished

Thomas Heinser captures how drought, fire, and industry make abstractions of the landscape.

Image Thomas Heinser
LakeCounty_9395 (Thomas Heinser)

Reduziert is the German word for “reduced.” You could use to it to refer to any kind of reduction: of light, mass, calories. But if you’ve ever walked through a German mall after Christmas, you’ll also have seen the word splashed across signs and windows of stores desperately offloading their merchandise. It’s the German equivalent of “sale.”

That dualism is what the German-born, California-based photographer Thomas Heinser is playing at with the title of his current show at San Francisco’s Gallery 16. “Reduziert” is a collection of aerial photographs taken in 2015. They capture California at its most diminished—from drought, from wildfire, and from human profit.

“We’re putting the world on sale,” he tells CityLab. “Everything is for commerce, and not for the survival of the planet.”

“BaySalt_6416” (Thomas Heinsert)

The exhibition includes shots of the evaporation ponds near San Francisco International Airport, where a 150 years of salt manufacturing has turned acres of wetlands into lurid red and yellow blooms. There are also photographs of the Central Valley, its once-lush fields turned into brown scar tissue from years of desiccation. And there are images of the chilling devastation that a historic wildfire caused in Lake County last fall.

Shooting from a helicopter, and without post-production digital alterations, Heinser frames these subjects with an eye for abstraction. Shadows cast by burnt trees become a pattern of dark, parallel gashes. Dried-out cropland turns into something like a lizard’s scales close up. Heinser says that gallery-goers are often surprised to learn that what they’re viewing are photographs, not paintings—which makes the beauty of these images all the more startling, and more dreadful.  

“Reality is amazing enough,” he says.

The exhibition runs through March 18.

“BaySalt_6249”  (Thomas Heinsert)
“BaySalt_6139”  (Thomas Heinsert)
“BaySalt_6424”  (Thomas Heinsert)
“CentralValley_1816”  (Thomas Heinsert)
“LakeMcClure_1736”  (Thomas Heinsert)
“CentralValley_1877”
CentralValley_8807
“LakeCounty_9219”

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.