Sure, there's risk involved in pursuing a career as an artist, but few American artists push the element of risk as far into the red zone as Michael Light does. A San Francisco-based photographer who has most recently specialized in massive, haunting, richly textured shots of the American West, Light takes most of his pictures while steering a small, podlike surveillance plane through thin air. These days Light, whose work is on display around the country, is preparing to publish LA Day/LA Night, a book that captures the ominous sprawling allure of the City of Angels.

Details: The images in your upcoming book make Los Angeles look both beautiful and scary, which it is.
Michael Light: It does have that duality. The day work is harsher and more unforgiving, and the night work is rather celestial and dreamy. So it's both the horror and the enchantment.

Details: Speaking of horror and enchantment, you shoot most of your pictures from a surveillance plane.
Michael Light: The plane is the culmination of kind of an exotic dream. It weighs 600 pounds when it's empty; it weighs 1,300 pounds when it's loaded and fueled. So it's very much a light-sport aircraft. It's a German-designed, Ukrainian-built observation pod, if you will. High-winged, 100-horsepower engine. It looks like a cartoon—it looks like it is out of a children's book, something like The Very Happy Airplane.
But it's actually very capable as an aircraft. With the doors on, it can travel 800 miles without refueling, at about 130 miles an hour. It gets about 27 miles to the gallon. Most cars can't really do that—certainly at that speed. And I purchased the aircraft because it has what's known as a cantilever wing, which is to say that there's no strut running from the wing to the fuselage. Those struts, which you find in high-wing aircraft, are directly in front of the field of view. I shoot with this big, massive 20-pound camera, kind of a historical piece at this point, that is descended from German military surveillance technology—a thing called a Linhof Aero Technika. It's a big beast, and I can't have a strut in the middle.

Details: What do you mean by "with the doors on"?
Michael Light: Because I own the plane, and I insure it, I can take the doors off. The doors have these quick-release pins—the factory made it that way for me. And the thing flies beautifully with the doors off. You can't go nearly as fast as you can with the doors on, but as an aerial platform from which to image cities, open spaces, or whatever I want to image, it's unsurpassed. So you have these large holes with the doors off. You slow down, it's breezy, but you've got a four-point harness.

Details: What happens if you run into trouble?
Michael Light: The plane has this system, which is a solid-fueled rocket. If you pull on this handle, off goes the rocket. The rocket's attached to a parachute, and the parachute's attached to the airplane. So if I get into trouble, or pass out, or have a heart attack, or, you know, God forbid, there's a structural failure, I can turn off the engine, pull this handle, and float down in the aircraft at about 10 or 15 miles an hour. The plane's totaled when it hits, but I survive.

Details: The parachute is attached to you?
Michael Light: Well, I'm attached to the plane in my four-point harness, in the cockpit. And the parachute is attached to the airplane itself. So there's no eject button or anything like that. It's as if the whole plane ejects, if you will, and comes down with a parachute.

Details: Weather must be a factor, right?
Michael Light: You really do have to respect the air currents. Working this way forces you to look at air as if it were like water, as if it were almost a liquid medium. It's invisible, but it behaves very much like water in a river. It's like rafting the Colorado in rapids in a fairly small raft. You can control the raft, but you're not going to go upriver. You're not going to win out over the river. So if you treat the river with respect, you're fine.

Details: Give me an example of that respect.
Michael Light: I would not, for example, cross the Sierra Nevadas—which I do all the time, at about 13,000 or 14,000 feet—I wouldn't do that maybe in the afternoon, when it gets really turbulent. I do that at dawn. The air is calm. In the West, especially in the summer, it heats up in the afternoon, and the earth heats up unevenly, and therefore you get turbulence. You get columns of rising air, columns of descending air. It gets more and more extreme the later the afternoon gets, and it's bumpy. Your teeth rattle. It's like being in a small boat in heavy chop. You're slamming into the chop—bam bam bam bam. Your teeth get loose. It's a bit like a roller coaster—you ride up a column of air, and it's going up at a thousand feet a minute, and you get out of that—what comes up must go down, right? So the air goes down at a thousand feet a minute.