Michael Light often snaps his photos from a two-seater plane — at a bumpy 70 mph — that he pilots himself at the same time, but you’d never know it from his well-composed aerial shots. From swimming-pooled suburbs in Phoenix to razed hills awaiting their luxury homes in Nevada, Light has been documenting the western U.S.’s unique topography from the air for the past decade.
In his series on Black Mountain, Nevada, Light’s photos put viewers in the plane with him as he glides over 640 acres of dynamite-flattened hilltops, carved through with pristine roads and cul de sacs linking graded house foundations. But there are no houses. No lawns, no pools, no sidewalks. No guard-staffed gates. This is the site of the Ascaya luxury housing development, which has lain dormant since the economic crash of 2008.
“Once they get built, it’s hard to un-build them,” says Light. From the air the sculpted earth reads like a strange code cut into the brown hills.
The Sun Belt cities experienced the most rapid growth of any American urban area in the early 21st century, and were hardest hit in the economic downtown. The ferocious demand for housing — over-sized, over-watered trophy housing — resulted in major alterations to the landscape.
The theme continues in Light’s work on Lake Las Vegas, a complex of luxury housing, country clubs and casinos fringing an artificial lake. The photos capture the surrealism of these “instant cities” made even more uncanny by their stalled development. Huge faux-Mediterranean mansions and irrigated yards neighbor bleak scrub brush. Residents use the empty lots next door for parking. Swaths of velvety golf lawns are framed by barren dirt.
“What humans do stays evident for a long time,” says Light, explaining his attraction to the region. Light, who is based in San Francisco, focuses on how economic vacillations impact our terrain and the American sense of entitlement toward homeownership. As Light puts it, these developments promised a dream of “classless classes, endless exuberance, Medici living for the everyday guy and a castle on the cheap protected from the politics gathering just outside the gates.”
While the subject matter is bleak, Light’s depictions are quite the opposite. Unlike a deadpan, New Topographics-style view of altered landscapes, his work is exalted and hyper-sharp. His troubling images of dirty rivers, interlacing highways or denuded hills are portrayed with grandeur, creating an unsettling tension of repulsion and attraction.
“I don’t want to lecture or heckle. I suppose it’s a primal thing — I want to go out there and document moments of amazement,” says Light. Flying offers him the freedom of airspace from which to see the land. And like Earth-observing satellites, he can see things he’s not supposed to.
The scale portrayed in Light’s work is extended in the prints he makes, which are usually at least 40 x 50 inches large. Light has shot mostly with large-format film until very recently shifting to digital. His books — handmade in the studio — are huge, sometimes requiring a special stand to hold them. Made in an “epic, 19th-century style,” the books are, in part, his “attempt to answer the insubstantiality of the digital image.”
As for his photos, Light is viewing these expanses with a much longer timeline than just a few years. “There is no wilderness any more. It’s an utterly cultivated planet,” he says, and yet he also states that geology is a “great comfort” to him as a measure of time in the West’s open landscape. It puts the unsustainable pace of urbanization into perspective: these homes, not to mention cities, may eventually return to dust.