On the first day of an ambitious yearlong project to photograph 10 cities at night, Pulitzer Prize winner Vincent Laforet leaned out of a helicopter door, 7,500 feet above Manhattan. His first thought was of his children. His second was of how long it would take to fall to his death (41 seconds, according to a physicist he met).
Despite 70-mph freezing winds and blurred vision, Laforet was overcome by the magnificence of the luminous display below and began snapping away. The result is the new book "Air," a mesmerizing collection of photographs taken from extreme heights of up to 12,000 feet.
The French American photographer captures the essence of each city through the intensity and color of the lights. Bright blue LED, yellow tungsten, pink and green fluorescent — they emblazon the nighttime landscapes of Los Angeles, London, Barcelona and beyond.
"The divide between East and West Berlin is still visible from the sky, 27 years after the wall fell," Laforet said. "The West is clearly more modern, lit in white, while East Berlin was darker and significantly more yellow."
Recent advancements in camera sensor technologies, combined with modern LEDs, allow remarkable clarity from a bird's-eye view.
"The color scheme is naturally occurring," Laforet said. "Cities are switching over to modern energy-efficient lighting, which appear more vibrant and blue in tone relative to the old, depressing yellow and orange sodium-vapor lights."
One view of Las Vegas showcases radiant grids that dramatically drop off into darkness at the desert's edge. Another shows what looks like a glowing toy-model version of Sin City's famous strip. Laforet used a tilt-shift lens to create a similar effect for shots of London Bridge and Big Ben.
"The creative effect, done with pure optics, makes the world look like a diorama or miniature doll house," the photographer said. Other images resemble computer motherboards or cool circuity patterns.
To prepare for outings in the air that last 21/2 to four hours, Laforet calls on mapping software to visualize patterns, topography and major monuments. Detailed flight plans are made weeks in advance. For instance, shooting in Berlin required a letter of approval from the city's governing Senate.
A selection of Laforet's photos are on display at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles through Jan. 30.