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“Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey”

If you’re a photographer who makes images of the Western landscape, the bar for success is set extraordinarily high. Americans have been taking photographs of rocky, clear-skied vistas for almost 150 years, in a lineage stretching from Timothy O’Sullivan to Carleton Watkins to Ansel Adams to Robert Adams.

By adding some twists, Adriel Heisey makes a game effort to update this artistic tradition. A pilot since age 21, Heisey became familiar with the starkly beautiful Four Corners region of the southwestern United States while flying for the Navajo tribal government. After relocating to Tucson, Ariz., he wed his longstanding love of photography to his expertise in aviation by documenting the Sonoran desert—located in southern Arizona and northern Mexico—from the air.

In 1990, Heisey built a two-seat aircraft that weighs only 450 pounds and flies between 35 mph and 75 mph. He folds it up, hauls it by trailer to remote locations in the desert, and then takes off from whatever flat, unobstructed patch of land he can find. The plane’s fuel capacity typically allows for a 30-mile flying radius. Heisey usually flies solo, carrying a camera and shooting from the open-to-the-elements pilot’s seat.

Nineteen of the photographs Heisey made in this fashion are now on view at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery, in an exhibition that coincides with the release of Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey, a volume of the photographer’s recent work. The show resonates strongly with “The Western Horizon: New Photographs,” an exhibition of Macduff Everton’s art mounted by the Ewing Gallery a little more than four months ago. Both Heisey and Everton photograph dramatic Western landscapes in large, color-saturated prints. Both were fresh off publishing a lavish volume of work. And in both cases, the gallery mounted what may be charitably described as an eclectic selection of pieces—some of the photographers’ best images, along with a number that are subpar.

By flying a rickety aircraft over unpopulated desert, Heisey clearly takes some physical risks to produce his art. (A climactic passage in his book comes when he and a passenger have to ditch their plane following a midair engine failure.) He also takes some artistic risks, most notably in attempting to unite the two dominant traditions of Western landscape photography: capturing the land’s inherent beauty and documenting man’s encroachment on that beauty.

Each of the four landscape photographers I cited earlier dealt with these twin impulses in varying ways. O’Sullivan’s most famous work recorded lands that had barely been seen by white Americans and thus showed little evidence of human encroachment. Watkins’ early work was contemporaneous with O’Sullivan’s, but he continued to make images through the late 1890s, by which time industrialization and resource extraction were much in evidence in the West. As the curators of his 2000 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art persuasively argued, Watkins found natural and industrial views equally worthy of artistic treatment.

By the time Ansel Adams came along, in the 1920s, the human impact on the environment had become so noticeable that it was no longer possible for landscape photographers to remain philosophically neutral. Ansel Adams, a passionate environmentalist, is best known for making his arguments by communicating the beauty of the West rather than by recording mankind’s scars upon it. By contrast, Robert Adams and other photographers in the New Topography movement of the 1970s took an opposite course: They seemed to ignore the wilderness that Ansel Adams had championed in favor of making images of the West’s least pristine—and often ugliest—aspects.

Heisey, for his part, is well-aware of the uneasy embrace between beauty and environmental degradation in modern America. More to the point, he—unlike many of his predecessors—makes that interplay a key feature of his art. Not all of his efforts to reconcile the two traditions of Western landscape photography work equally well—some of his images are unattractive, others merely ordinary—but he does deserve credit for trying to expand on the established visual vernacular rather than simply recapitulating it.

Consider Houses Surrounding Butte. The setting of this wide-landscape image is stereotypically Southwestern: deep-red peaks under a pale-blue sky on a crisp desert afternoon. But this particular butte is far from pristine: It’s been colonized by dozens of double-wide trailer homes, which look like insects circling an anthill.

Even with the presence of the trailers, you can still tell that the area possesses great beauty, as does the image itself. But the trailers are indeed there—and because of that, the photograph manages to blend natural and man-made elements into a coherent, if rather unsettling, whole. The book—though not the show—includes an even finer example of how Heisey captures the interface of America’s wild and built environments: an image of a closely packed, triangle-shaped housing development that, when shot from above, seems to jut with geometric precision into the vacant, shrubby topography surrounding it.

Like that untitled image, Feedlot With Fields relates a narrative of Western development within the pleasing vocabulary of simple geometry. The top half of the photograph features an arresting, multicolored zigzag of cultivated fields; the bottom half has a row of parallel metal roofs that I initially took for flea-market stalls. In fact, they’re cattle-feeding stations, and the spots I first identified as people are actually cows.

This is a sight that simply could not have been experienced had Heisey not been willing to go airborne. The same goes for River With Watercraft. The image, taken directly from above, features a flat background: a river, colored in an unusual shade of deep green and with an unexpected, almost reptilian texture. Zooming upward in this tableau are a group of four motorboats and their long, angular wakes. The photograph’s simple forms, near-unreal colors, subtle textures, and dramatic action combine to make it Heisey’s finest image.

Inevitably, not every effort of Heisey’s to capture the interaction of man and nature proves so successful. Take Golf Course With Fountain. The image’s sculpted turf and water hazards make it a photograph fit for a retirement-community advertising brochure. Even its most interesting features—its geometric patterns of grass cuttings and its free-form fountain spray—are visual clichés.

In his better images, Heisey capitalizes on the disorientation we sense when viewing a familiar-looking landscape from above. For instance, we expect to read both Saguaro and Palo Verde Trees and Wildflowers and Trees on Hillside as if we were standing on the ground, staring directly in front of us at a vertical, gently receding slope of land. Yet the shots were taken from the air, straight down—a difference of 90 degrees. The vegetation in the pictures looks similar to what we’re used to, but the shadows dart in unexpected, vertigo-inducing directions.

A similar type of disorientation elevates Star Dune above other portrayals of sand dunes, a common subject for landscape photographers. Because most sand-dune images are taken from ground level, they tend to emphasize swooping crescents and subtle gradations of beige or gray. But because it’s taken from above, Star Dune winds up as more of a pie-chart shape, with alternating areas of beige and black that rotate around a central point. It’s not like any dune I’ve seen in Ansel Adams’ portfolio.

At times, Heisey squanders the benefits of his overhead perspective. Needle Rock and River and Saguaro were shot from so low above the ground that the images aren’t much more dramatic than what you might see from the top of a modest cliff. The same problem afflicts Peaks With Ocean, although the photograph is redeemed by the water’s remarkable, nearly unnatural shade of blue.

Similarly, Picacho Peak With Saguaros and Clouds succeeds where several of Heisey’s other dirt-red landscapes fail. Though impenetrable shadows and overdramatic lighting mar some of these images, Picacho Peak stands out because it features a smattering of saguaros that rise from the late-afternoon shade like stubble from a cheek. The cactuses are actually enormous, but they seem charmingly diminutive from Heisey’s airborne seat.

The gallery show offers minimal information about Heisey’s technique, but those seeking more will find it in the accompanying book—in spades. Heisey’s long-winded and rather self-indulgent text—in which he regales readers with tales of photographic forays he’s taken with his family, with his friends, and by himself—is sprinkled with so many “I”s that they all began looking like scattered saguaros to me. Fortunately, you can enjoy Heisey’s work without even glancing at the text. All you need is the ability to imagine yourself in the cockpit. CP