Details: You're in Santa Fe at the moment.
Michael Light: New Mexico is notorious for these fantastically beautiful cumulus clouds and then afternoon thunderstorms. Those lovely skies that you look at and say, "Oh, the white puffy clouds and then the blue sky in between and then the next puffy cloud..." Each division between the blue and the white is like a roller coaster going up and down. Very intense.
Details: So you are flying and taking pictures at the same time. Isn't there a threat of crashing?
Michael Light: Well, no, because I cheat a little bit. The aircraft seats two people, which is very nice, and that means that I can put my trusty assistant, Ben, in the right-hand seat. He's not a pilot—I am the pilot—but he's excellent at steadying the aircraft while I am doing an actual period of shooting.
Details: Are other planes a threat?
Michael Light: I don't like to shoot over big metropolitan areas. There's too much traffic, and the airspaces are too complicated. You really don't want to get in the way of a big jet airliner if you weigh 1,000 pounds. They throw off these wingtip vortexes, and they'll just toss an airplane up 180 degrees, rip a wing off, things like that.
Details: I understand that you sometimes shoot from a helicopter, too.
Michael Light: Helicopter work is different, because you have more choices. If I were a different kind of artist, I could literally storyboard out all the shots that I wanted to get and then go get them with a helicopter. I don't do that. I'm much more—forgive the pretension—sort of an aerial flaneur. You know? It's just so much fun to go out and stroll around in the air, basically, and see what you see: "Oh, look at that..."
Details: Was there an epiphany for you when you knew you wanted to shoot pictures from the air?
Michael Light: There were a couple of those moments. I grew up with a lot of aviation in the family, and I was actually flying aircrafts before I was driving. I had a pilot's license to fly gliders, engineless planes, at 16, before I had a driver's license. And my grandfather's brother was kind of a legendary pilot in the thirties and was the first person to fly around the world in a private seaplane. So Uncle Richard was a big factor, when I was growing up, in cultivating my interest in aviation.
I graduated from Amherst in '86 and moved west. After a couple of years of living in San Francisco, I decided to get very serious about photography. In grad school I started making aerial images from commercial jet airliners. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to get a decent picture from two layers of bad Plexiglas and 30,000 feet of haze. There was something wonderful about that work—it was very Buddhist. I could not control the aircraft. I couldn't say to the pilot, "Oh, please, could you circle around one more time?" Whatever we went over was whatever we went over. There was a kind of wonderful drifting, or strolling—sort of like, let's see what we see and it will unfold underneath us.
Details: How did you decide to make the switch to your own plane?
Michael Light: I actually had the opportunity to get up in a small fixed-wing aircraft around 1993 or so—over Santa Fe in the winter. Over piņon pines, which are of course the dominant visual feature out here, after a snowstorm. You had these black piñon pines, and you had these white scallops right next to every piņon pine. I saw this picture coming up from the chemicals in the darkroom, and it was kind of trippy and abstract, and I had this utterly eureka moment, of like, "No no no no no. You're not looking down at the piņon pines, you're actually—it's totally vertiginous reversal, you're looking up at the night sky. You're looking up at the celestial fabric." In 2000 or 2001 I started thinking, "Well, hmm, are there any aircraft out there that I might possibly be able to borrow or get a hold of, where they might have a cantilever wing or I might be able to take off the doors?" And there really weren't any. There was this aircraft, which had yet to be approved in the United States, called the Flight Design CTSW, and it was in Germany. I flew the plane in Germany. And it flew beautifully with the doors off. And I'm like, "Wow, this is so cool, this is so great, I am so out of my mind. Utterly and totally out of my frickin' mind."