The photographer dangles from a harness outside his custom-built little plane, puttering along at 35 to 40 mph above the landscape he's shooting. Because his hands are busy aiming his camera, Heisey steers with his right leg, attached by a strap to the control stick. This arrangement allows him an unimpeded view of the ground below, but it also can be cold, bumpy and even terrifying.
"I'm shooting out in the open, so the wind is pressing on me, and it's noisy and it doesn't feel very good. Sometimes I even stall when I'm shooting," he says by phone from his home in Montrose, Colo. "Turbulence is probably the most consistent problem. It can get quite unpleasant at times."
Luckily for the rest of us, Heisey's good moments aloft outweigh his bad ones. "From Above," an exhibit of his stunning aerial photos, opened Saturday at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where it will remain through May 20. These 28 bird's-eye images, whose subjects include Pueblo ruins, lonely desert highways and buttes bathed in golden twilight, offer a new way of looking at the world.
Most of the photographs depict mysterious ruins left by the ancient Indian cultures of the Southwest. Hidden by sagebrush or atop mesas, these archaeological sites might go unnoticed by passing hikers. From the air, however, they create geometric patterns that catch the eye. This helps explain why "From Above," which has been touring the country for two years, was created with help from the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Ariz.
"The captured moments of Heisey's photographs unveil countless hidden stories, from geological processes to relationships among species and the interaction between nature and culture," writes the center's president, William H. Doelle, in an introduction to From Above, a book of Heisey's photos published in conjunction with the show.
"His predominant theme is the human imprint on the landscape," Doelle adds. "However, these photographs are not primarily about science. They elegantly reveal the diversity of the human relationship with the Earth."
A Pennsylvania native, Heisey began taking flying lessons in 10th grade. He became enchanted with the scenery of the Four Corners area on his first visit in the late 1970s and returned five years later to take a job as a pilot with the Navajo Nation.
Soon Heisey was soaring over the Southwest every week, ferrying tribal leaders to and from meetings. On the rare occasions when his airplane was empty, he'd pull out his camera, bank the plane and snap photos of the desert and mountains below.
"It was almost like a virus had gotten in my blood," he says of his fascination with the landscape, especially when photographed from the air. "It got more and more intense for me. I realized it was something I cared about very deeply."
To pursue this passion fully, Heisey in 1990 began to build his own airplane. After more than a year of research and trial-and-error assembly, he customized a Kolb Twin-Star, a portable aircraft that when empty weighs only about 500 pounds.
Learning to sit outside the plane and steer with his feet proved tricky.
"It was almost like learning to fly all over again," Heisey says. "It was so slow and open and loud. It took me some months before I began feeling comfortable doing photography. It was kind of a dicey time, because I wasn't sure if it was going to work."
Because his plane flies more slowly than cars can travel on the highway, Heisey usually tows it to the areas he wants to photograph. The aircraft's wings and tail fold, allowing Heisey to fit the plane inside a trailer he tows behind his pickup truck. He usually flies out of small airstrips, although in remote areas he has taken off and landed on dirt roads. It helps that he only needs 200 feet of runway to become airborne.
To get the detailed images he wants, Heisey flies only several hundred feet off the ground, which can sometimes be hazardous.
"I got a little too close once and missed hitting a rock outcropping by a matter of feet," he says. "It really scared me."
At first, Heisey just focused on shooting the natural world. But after an archaeologist friend took him to visit a ruin near Heisey's then-home in Arizona, he grew fascinated with ancient dwelling sites as photographic subjects. A filmmaker hired him to shoot aerial photos of Chaco Canyon, N.M., a major site of ancestral Pueblan culture. Later an archaeologist recruited him to photograph an excavation of a hillside ruin in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Most of the photos in "From Above" were shot between 1993 and 2003 in Arizona and New Mexico, although one image depicts Anasazi cliff dwellings along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. The images are large - 3 by 4 feet - and accompanied by maps showing where each was taken.
Utah Museum of Natural History staffers have augmented Heisey's photos with items from the museum's collection, including Hopi Kachina figures, pottery from the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico and a 3-D topography map of the Four Corners region, complete with 3-D glasses for proper viewing.
In his work, Heisey likes to juxtapose ancient human footprints on the desert with modern development to illustrate our changing relationship with the land. One image shows a Tucson archaeological dig next to a freeway onramp. Another photo shows an ancient footpath on a hillside near Wintersburg, Ariz.; in the background is a nuclear power plant.
"The desert has a way of telescoping and compressing time, never so much as when you're airborne, I think," he says. "It's possible to look down and see something that's impossibly old . . . [next to] something that was made this morning."
For Heisey, years of observing the Earth's surface from the sky have led him to believe that all humans are interconnected and that there's no such thing as "not in my backyard." And by revealing these ghostly remnants of our past cultures, the photographer hopes to help illuminate our present. As Heisey likes to say, he flies for wonder, and he photographs for understanding.
"As I get older, I get concerned about how short our memory as a culture is. There seems to be this quickening pace," he says. "But there's a kind of stillness that comes over me when I'm in the presence of these ruins from centuries past. To me, flying and aerial photography is all about revelation. It's a kind of religious experience."
"FROM ABOVE," an exhibition of aerial photographs by Adriel Heisey, is on display through May 20 at the Utah Museum of Natural History, 1390 E. Presidents Circle on the University of Utah campus. Admission is $6 for adults; $3.50 for seniors and children 12 and under. Heisey will visit the museum for Earth Day activities on April 21. For more information, call 801-581-6927 or visit http://www.umnh.utah.edu.
A bird's-eye view of ancient cultures
* A reconstructed prehistoric sporting arena in the Wupatki National Monument, Ariz.
* A large-scale human image created by ancestral Pueblan peoples inside a circular footpath, near the Plomosa Mountains, Ariz.
* Pueblo room blocks in snow on the Santa Clara Indian Reservation in New Mexico.
blocks with reconstructed adobe walls, dating to 1200-1500, in Chihuahua, Mexico.