Visualizing the Fast Lane From Above

Peter Andrew Lusztyk’s aerial photographs of freeway interchanges feel vaguely familiar. I might not know what these interchanges look like from above, but as a native Houstonian I’m well acquainted with these elaborate feats of engineering. Houston has some of the most towering ramps, widest freeways, and multipronged interchanges in the U.S. Or, as we like to call them: spaghetti bowls. The way your stomach turns a little as you reach the highest point on one of these ramps is something you have to experience to fully understand.

Lusztyk has yet to photograph interchanges in Houston, but he says it’s high up on his list of locations. The miniature-looking cars and frozen details of Lusztyk’s photographs are practically surreal. They depict one of those rare instances where “bad” mid-afternoon light illuminates a scene. The result is a series of detailed tableaux called “Highways.” Lusztyk recently shared details of this intriguing project.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you first start working on this project?

PETER ANDREW LUSZTYK: There was a scene in a Dr. Seuss cartoon that I used to watch when I was a kid. It depicted the future with all the highways elevated on these sky-high ramps that twisted throughout a metropolis. I remember flying into Toronto’s Pearson Airport around the same age and seeing the interchanges on the 401 and thinking, Hey, that’s already the reality. In 2008, I had a friend doing flight training and he was able to take me up on some photo missions and that’s when I shot the first images in the series.

JANNA: Why do freeway interchanges interest you? How do you find interchanges to photograph?

PETER: I think what interests me is that they are so intricate, so planned, and massive but at the same time invisible—mostly overlooked, ignored. I spend hours scouting around for them on Google Earth.

JANNA: How do you make these aerials? How high in the air are you?

PETER: I like to shoot out of small helicopters. The R22 is a favorite of mine because it is relatively cheap to rent, easy to maneuver, and you can remove the doors. Sometimes helicopters are hard to rent in some places, in which case I’ll use a Cessna. I’m normally around 1,000 to 1,600 feet high but that can change depending on the size of the interchange and height restrictions in the area.

JANNA: Where have you found the most interesting interchanges?

PETER: I love the ones in Detroit because they are massive but at the same time desolate. Sometimes the most interesting interchanges are in smaller/medium-size cities like Amarillo, Jacksonville, and Albany.

JANNA: How has your technique evolved? What kind of light or moments do you look for?

PETER: I’ve learned to sacrifice using a low ISO in order to get a faster shutter speed. I’d rather have more grain but a razor-sharp exposure. This has evolved too because in the time I’ve been shooting the series the ISO quality in digital cameras has been exponentially improving.

I like dynamic lighting. Sunsets and long shadows help give the highway structures dimension. Sometimes I’m in a location for only a few hours so I have to live with whatever lighting is available. It works out well though because it gives the images in the series their own unique character. I think if all the images were shot in ideal and identical lighting conditions it wouldn’t be as interesting.

JANNA: What surprises you the most when you are above an interchange?

PETER: There is a weird moment sometimes where you pause and realize there is a tremendous, almost dizzying level of motion. Nothing is holding still. The helicopter is orbiting, the ground is moving, the cars are all buzzing around. When you’re looking through the viewfinder composing the image, everything seems to slow down, but when you look away for a second, you feel the velocity and altitude.

Follow Peter Andrew Lusztyk on Twitter and Instagram.

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