In one image, gulf waves break like delicate lace on crumpled green wool. In another, creased mountains resemble the rough shell of an ancient tortoise. In a third, an oil fracking field could be mistaken for a semiconductor as observed under a microscope.
These are the tantalizing aerial photographs of Texas captured by Jay B. Sauceda, now on display in the Rotunda Gallery of the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
“Texas From Above,” on view through June 16, frames the state as it has never been seen before. Flying solo in a 182 Cessna Turbo Prop, the Austin entrepreneur, photographer and humorist attempted to record the 3,822 miles of Texas borderlands from the air during a trip broken into six legs. He flew for 36 hours, burning 569.6 gallons of fuel while taking 44,000 photographs.
One reason that these images of shores, waterways, farmlands, canyons, residential subdivisions and industrial sites are so startling is the alternating height of his plane and angle of his cameras. Some were hand-held from a window; others were employed survey-style, directly down.
These days, we are accustomed to mostly flat satellite images taken from orbits more than 20,000 miles above the earth that are then magically telescoped into digital mapping. Additionally, social media is saturated with quick passenger mementos snapped from commercial airliners at altitudes of 33,000 to 41,000 feet. More recently, drone photography has given us entirely fresh viewpoints taken at or below 400 feet from the ground.
Sauceda takes us back to the golden days of aerial photography in the pre-drone era of the mid-20th century. He shot from his small plane from an altitude of 1,000 to 6,000 feet, although with vastly improved technology.
“At this height, things are far away enough that they look like toys,” Sauceda says, “or at least not what they are.”
And the results are sensational, even though the prints used for the Bullock show are sometimes disappointingly small.
As a youth, the founder of Sauceda Industries, an e-commerce consulting company, as well as Jay B. Sauceda Photography and the Texas Humor magazine’s social media accounts, grew interested in aviation because he and his father watched so many World War II movies. He also built model airplanes.
This project grew out of a Texas Monthly assignment to shoot trains moving in between Marfa and Alpine at 3,000 or 4,000 feet.
When he decided to attempt a counter-clockwise tour of the state’s borderlands, he started with sectional charts of Texas, which are coded maps that show variously sized and colored circles around the state’s large and small airports, along with altitude restrictions and other helpful data. Staring at one of these maps in the Rotunda Gallery will give you a completely different vision of Texas, because airports, not cities, are the focal points.
In advance, Sauceda worked with the X-Plane simulator application on a Mac Pro.
“Operating the radio was the hardest part,” he says. “Talking and flying while photographing almost overwhelmed me.”
His voyage began in a family plane from his home base in San Marcos, flying over Surfside Beach — and its sun-kissed beach houses — on his way from Victoria to Marshall, the first leg of the state’s outline.
“That meant so much to me because I’ve spent a lot of time in Galveston,” says Sauceda, who grew up in nearby in La Porte. “On most of the trip, however, I was trying to interpret the state from other people’s perspectives.”
On this stretch of the tour, we also see thick coastal clouds, sparkling bays and serpentine rivers. The next leg, from Marshall in East Texas to Dalhart in the Panhandle, lays out crop irrigation circles and wind farms, tiny grids of towns and veins of unexpected canyons.
Leg three from Dalhart to El Paso provides evidence of intensive fracking as well as the high plains rising into the arid mountains. At times, the land, yellow to umber, appears like geometric puzzles. The fourth leg, El Paso to Marfa, reveals the immense variety of Texas’ deserts and low mountains. Leg five was the most spectacular, as Sauceda recorded the vistas around Big Bend, including a singular shot of Santa Elena Canyon as it opens up into the valley floor beneath the Chisos Mountains. (I’ve never seen this iconic location from this angle.)
He goes back to his base in Marfa — where he parties with Austinites, of course — then heads to Mustang Island on the Gulf Coast to complete his voyage. As he follows the Rio Grande, then the coast, his images contrast intense human development with the still-untouched allures of nature.
Along the way, Sauceda dealt with storms and gliders and “sweaty summer flying.”
“But I saw things nobody else has seen because they have never done it this way,” he says. “The 44,000 photos have a lot to say. I’m not an artist, but I found myself an artist on the flight.”