When Thomas Heinser showed his pictures of California’s parched landscape in a gallery last month, people couldn’t tell what they were looking at.
Last year marked the driest summer California has seen in at last 500 years, causing water shortages and resulting in forest fires throughout the state. Shot from the side of a doorless helicopter, Heinser’s aerial photographs look more like abstract art than fields and valleys—driving home the transformative effects of climate change in California.
Heinser, who has lived in California for three decades, first noticed the visual effect of drought in 2014. He was driving down Interstate 5, which cuts through the part of the state hit hardest by drought, California’s Central Valley. “I was driving by an almond orchard and it was totally dried out. It was next to a lush citrus orchard, and the contrast was striking,” he says.
He looked up news about the area and found out that many farmers had been forced to abandon their land due to the lack of water. ”That’s when I started focusing on the orchards,” he tells Quartz.
Wildfires caused by the drought have also altered the landscape in California. Last year alone, over 300,000 acres burned in the state, leaving lunar-like landscapes covered in ash and the remains of trees. In Oct. 2015, a wildfire burned approximately 10,000 acres in Lake County, approximately three hours north of Heinser’s home in San Francisco.
Heinser hired a helicopter to capture the aftermath of the fire. ”We waited until they lifted the flying restrictions, and then we went up the next day,” he tells Quartz.
The photographer does very little post-production work on his images, but the process of capturing each shot is demanding. ”It’s very tiring physically,” he says. “The pilot goes into tight turns, so that the helicopter turns sideways and I can get a shot looking straight down.”
Heinser scouts out each location before returning to take a photo, and he shoots only in the ten minutes just after dawn. He says the shadows from the early sun help define the edges of the landscape.
Heinser perfected the technique of aerial photography in 2013, shooting salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay. Companies pipe saltwater into shallow, artificial ponds and then let it evaporate in order to harvest the salt, which can cause colorful bacteria to proliferate in the standing water.
See more of Heinser’s work here.