Adam Senatori has been a pilot for three decades. He’s also a self-taught photographer who comes from a family rich in art knowledge — his father is an art director, his mother is an art historian. He’s smart, methodical and deliberate about his photographs; inspiration for his aerial photography is rooted in the 17th and 18th century Dutch painters, and their intense attention to light in landscapes. When he takes his Hasselblad medium-format digital camera up into planes, he does not arbitrarily shoot down on earth. He thinks, points and then shoots.
Senatori’s mindset is, in many ways, antithetical to the modern digital platforms — places where photographs are meant to be consumed rapidly and then replenished with a fresh batch of images, instantaneously. He has an enormous Instagram following, but he treats the platform like a gallery: 832,000 followers, only 377 posts. His photographs fit well on the small, digital screen, but they also hold weight on a larger, analog scale. He is the first photographer on a new online marketplace, Captured 52, which will sell his prints at nearly 50 inches wide. At that size, the print demands certain things of a viewer: it requires you to slow down and look, more methodically than you otherwise would, at the print. It’s a fitting platform for his work, his methodology, his mindset.
Q. So a lot of your pictures you take from inside of planes or helicopters, which means you’re constantly moving. How do you remain methodical with while shooting from inside a moving object?
A. Generally helicopters can hover, but it’s pretty taxing for the pilot to do that. He can get me pretty slow or hover for a few moments and then we have to move on. The bigger thing is cost. I mean, it’s so expensive to fly. So there aren’t too many retakes. If I see a shot, and I didn’t get it the first time, we’ll double back and go hit it again, but I pretty much get everything the first time. It’s just a matter of having everything dialed in on the ground, so all I need to do is just frame it and shoot it versus trying to, you know, really finesse the technical aspects of it. And, actually, in a way, shooting aerials for me is pretty easy versus shooting landscapes on the ground because I always — almost always — use the same setting in the air. So everything is dialed in. All I need to do is just get focused in and then pull the trigger.
Q. What appeals to you about aerial photography?
A. I think the fact that it’s just a completely different perspective, and what really appeals to me is when I am flying and I look down on cities and communities and I think of all the different lives that are going on below me, and I think it provides myself and the viewers a different perspective. On the surface, we all have our battles. There are the battles, triumphs, sorrows that are going on in every building that I shoot, every house that I shoot, but you are, in a way, just floating above it all. And then when I land, I am among the rest of us, and my phone starts ringing, and I have issues to deal with and everything else. So I think what appeals to me is the escape.
Q. When you look at an aerial photograph as a print it’s harder to imagine taking that photograph as opposed to photos taken on the ground. So an aerial photograph almost becomes more of a two-dimensional experience because it’s so difficult to actually imagine yourself in the three-dimensional moment of, “Oh, that’s where this photographer was standing when they clicked the shutter.”
Q. And so, you have to treat the photograph differently. You treat the composition of the image as its own identity more than you would a photograph that is from a perspective that is easier to connect with.
A. Exactly. In fact, I think a lot of times people get sort of confused by my aerials. Especially if I shoot down from the 45 degree, which I shoot a lot, you do get those perspectives. It flattens it, and it does make the viewer kind of think, wait, what am I looking at? If I shot like a piece of a neighborhood a certain way, people would think it’s food or a microprocessor. They look at it, and it just doesn’t look like an aerial. They make me think, am I doing my job? Or am I not? Because people don’t know what they’re looking at.
For the most part, I try and utilize shadows the best I can. I always said that I am heavily influenced by the 17th and 18th century Dutch painters who use light — gorgeous light that depicts landscapes in scenes. So I carry that into my artwork. Some of my best aerials involve the early morning light or late afternoon light where it’s golden and there’s long shadows. Those two things help guide the viewer through the fact that, yes, this is an aerial. This was not taken on the ground, and this is not a microprocessor or food.
Q. Have you moved completely to digital or do you still shoot on film?
A. I have moved completely to digital, but that said, I think that’s why I am really into medium-format digital. Shooting in medium-format digital is extremely methodical. It’s like it’s one frame at a time. It’s not that rapid-fire, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. So I think that lends itself to my work — my workflow. Even though it’s digital, shooting medium format is almost like analog — almost like shooting film in a way. It’s just one frame at a time: very slow, everything is manual.
Q. So with Captured 52 — why are you a part of it, and how do you see it as being a good way of getting your art in front of other people?
A. Yeah, they approached me this winter, and pitched the idea, and I was really intrigued by it — the concept was something different, and what they were interested in was my medium-format photography work. So that appealed to me because I am hoping to market large-scale photos, and the way they presented it to be a good way to get exposure for some of my medium-format photography that looks good really big — you know, 50, 80 inches wide. So the concept was really unique, and I was pretty much on board right away.
Q. It’s interesting, in the age of the Internet where images tend to be seen as, like, something that you can just grab and steal and then do whatever you want with them — the whole idea of people making sure that they maintain a certain respect and value for printed pieces and the efforts of the artists themselves. So how do you maintain the value of the images that you shoot?
A. Well, first of all, that’s a good point, and I agree with it. The way the Internet is, it’s a beast because feeding it is a stream of photos to keep people interested — to keep your audience interested. And it’s actually counter to the way I work. I prefer working small-batch photos — really scripting out my photos, thinking them through instead of just the instant, sort of, click and go. It’s, you know, I think the way things are going to be now. So I just kind of dug in a little bit and resisted the urge the best I could to just constantly shoot and upload and disseminate photos. My sort of mentality is to shoot what I want to shoot, shoot on my timetable and disseminate photos, I guess, on my timeline. But I try to find a happy ground. I guess the long story made short here is that I want my images to be lasting, and I want them to be an accurate snapshot of a moment in time that people can look back at 50 years from now and think, okay, that’s what that was, you know, that’s what that landscape looked like instead of just a thousand photo bits that really don’t mean much.
Q. Where does that sensibility come from? I mean, I was reading your bio, and it sounds like you came from a fairly well-educated, artistic family. How did your artist sensibility come about?
A. You know, I think it’s just sort of the way I am in general. I am pretty methodical with everything, and I am sure you have read in the bio somewhere that I grew up in a really artistic household. My dad is an art director, has been, still is — my entire life. My mom is an art history teacher, and so I grew up around art. But back in the day, we didn’t have digital. So artists — photographers — literally would make one photo at a time, you know, and I think that ingrained in me that’s how I want to work. That’s how I create my imagery, you know, one photo at a time. I don’t have a lot of photos out there — I mean, maybe a couple of thousand? three thousand? — that I really like, and the rest just sit or I delete.
Q. You have a pilot’s background, and that comes into play with your relationship with flying. I am a little more curious with how, as a pilot, you look at aircrafts as pieces of art. As you photograph them, there’s a certain love coming through that you have for the shape and the arrangement of how a plane looks.
A. They are works of art. They are the pointy end of the sphere of form and function. They are incredible, and they have to be as efficient as humanly possible to save money, of course, but at the same time, design-wise, absolutely gorgeous. I love that. So as far as aircraft go — you know, there are guys that are strictly dedicated to shooting cars because they know where there are angles to shoot. They know how to light them. They know which perspective is, for lack of a better word, sexy. And I think coming from 25 years of aviation, I know what angles look good, and I know how light plays off in certain areas of the fuselage and the engine and all that. So I think for me, it’s almost like, it feels natural shooting aircraft either in the air or on the ground. That’s easy for me.
Q. Any advice for aspiring photographers, lay photographers or professional photographers?
A. Try everything. Moreover, try everything and then whittle it down to, if you can, a niche. I get a lot of pushback from that because people think being niche is bad or boring, but I think if you want to master your craft truly, you need to shoot the same genre day in and day out. But that’s just my opinion.