Going to Church, Photographing LAX

Going to Church, Photographing LAX

Beauty is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Los Angeles International Airport. Most often the first word you’re going to think of is explicit, four letters long, and is immediately followed by the mental gymnastics that one must perform when they figure out the optimal time to leave in order to beat 405 traffic while not getting stuck in 10 traffic but at the same time approaching the airport so as to dodge Century Blvd traffic. Need I mention the loop, or the low-roofed ceilings, or overpriced airport food (hey, it’s getting better!), jammed TSA lines, etc. It’s an airport we love to hate, but ever since moving to Los Angeles I’ve made a near-weekly trip out to photograph it. It’s an utterly incredible operation. The fourth busiest airport in the world, second busiest in the United States. It’s not a highly-polished Singapore, or a ruthlessly efficient Haneda, nor is it a depressing LaGuardia. It’s a hodge-podge of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, quiet and loud. And as a result, it just oozes character from the totally beautiful Tom Bradley terminal to the “what were they thinking” regional jet terminals; there’s really a little bit of everything.

Since you might have also noticed I’m a little bit of an architecture guy, LAX has plenty on offer. From the iconic mid-century theme building by Paul Williams to the instantly-recognizable air traffic control tower – called a “shaggy palm tree” when it was revealed (how fitting for LA) – by  Siegel Sklarek Diamond and now, finally, the new Tom Bradley Terminal by Fentress, who’s responsible for some of the most beloved airport terminals in the world.

I, of course, don’t need to mention (but here I am) my utterly childlike fascination with airplanes which I never really grew out of. But from what I’ve heard, all airplane people are like that.  It’s sort of like the mob, once you’re in, there’s no getting out, and it starts to dominate your life in ways you never thought possible, like dissecting prime-time TV shows and pointing out the fact that the stock footage of a plane landing is clearly from the wrong time period, or that the interior of the plane doesn’t match the exterior – yeah, you get it.

So over the last decade, LAX has become a sort of weekly pilgrimage for me. Sunday morning bagels on Imperial Hill, Saturday afternoon barbecues on Dockweiler Beach, and an uncountable amount of calories consumed at the Sepulveda In-N-Out. All of these excursions have influenced and inspired my photographs of the area, some more obviously than others. Of course, my architectural photography background plays a role as well, and not only have I captured the comings and goings of aircraft at the airport, but also the dramatic architectural evolution that has taken place at the airport over the last ten years. It is safe to say then, that my body of work from LAX is probably my largest on a single subject and personally my most significant to date.

It wasn’t really until early 2014 that my love for the airport was kicked into overdrive; with the viral success of Wake Turbulence, which documented a full day worth of air traffic on runways 25L and R. It was after this photo that the airport and its surrounds became an integral part of my career and as a result, I don’t imagine that ever changing.

Wake Turbulence

Not only was this picture an unbelievable commercial, artistic, and viral success, but it opened the door to incredible relationships with Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA, the organization responsible for managing and running LAX), the air traffic control employees, pilots, architects, and contractors at LAX. This image marked the start of a great relationship with LAWA et. al., who have used me to create some of the images used for marketing and improving the image of LAX to the general public. When LAWA invited me to create another image of LAX in the same style from any vantage point of my choosing, I settled on a day-to-night composite showing not just one runway’s operations, but the entire airports operations from day to night blended together in one image. I was granted access to the old control tower from which I created this image, which is involved blending hundreds of images together, both long exposures and short exposures, to arrive at the intended result.

LAX International, Day-to-Night

Throughout this time I was continuing to work on my LA Airspace project which involved documenting the city of Los Angeles from a helicopter. I was contacted by an LAX air traffic controller who was a fan of my work and helped to offer guidance to get me in a helicopter over the airport. I count these aerial photo missions as some of my favorite photography memories. There’s not much that is as absolutely captivating as flying over an active airport, listening to air traffic control, and becoming a small player on this gigantic stage.

LAX in 2014, a still unfinished TBIT, and a lot of cars

Towards the end of 2014, the heat started to subside from the insanity that was Wake Turbulence and while I continued to make regular trips to LAX for photography, I set my sights on expanding the project to other airports around the world. Airportraits was born and after spending about 4 months on the road in total, I realized how good I had it at LAX. It’s really a far more interesting airport to photograph than almost any other major airport on earth (and I can say that because I’ve literally spent an eye-watering amount of time trying to make good pictures at airports all over the world!). I concluded the current iteration of the project with No Turn Before Shoreline, a little nod to the lit runway signs I’ve seen on countless flights out of LAX, urging pilots not to deviate from the centerline of the runways after takeoff to keep neighboring communities from being disturbed by noise. I find it somewhat funny in a way, almost like trying to fight the tide, but I digress. No Turn Before Shoreline was an effort to capture the feeling of a day on Dockweiler Beach, enjoying the constant thrum of engines and the beauty of these giant metal birds flying overhead into the Pacific.

No Turn Before Shoreline

With Airportraits wrapped up for the time being, I started to further explore the architecture of LAX. With the completion of the Tom Bradley Terminal (it wasn’t really finished until early 2016 with the completion of the T4-TBIT connector by Corgan Architects and for all I know there’s still construction ongoing somewhere) I pivoted to photographing the architectural side of the airport. As I became more familiar with what was possible in terms of flying over the airport in a helicopter, my photos began to get more and more interesting.


Flying over the airport in a helicopter exposes you to some very interesting details that you probably wouldn’t notice otherwise. It’s from this vantage point that I’ve cooked up a number of interesting ideas for projects that I’ve worked on. One such example are photographs of airplanes that, well, don’t show an airplane. Seeing shadows race towards the ocean inspired a series in-progress, yet another interesting take on this incredible place.

747 Runway 25R


A380 Runway 24L (Western Snowy Plover)

Of course, these aerial views reveal patterns and details that go completely unseen otherwise. One begins to gain an appreciation for the utter chaos that an airport environment is. Yet despite the chaos, there’s an extreme rigidity to it all which creates a great visual rhythm. Baggage carts left haphazardly around piers and jet bridges, tiny figures inspect aircraft and move cargo, but around each aircraft is a completely sterile area disturbed only by the jetbridge and fueling trucks.

Bradley Terminal with Air Tahiti Nui A340

Other terminals take it even further, where some slight architectural weathering mixes with aged concrete and a mish-mash of additions and subtractions to maximize operating capacity. Considering how little of these scenes we witness when traveling, there’s something completely, to me at least, arresting about these views.

Terminal 4

Terminals 2 and 3

Not only are these far-removed exterior views and moments wonderful to photograph, but I’ve also had the chance to photograph the grounds and interiors of the airport which are of course beautiful in their own right. I previously mentioned the architectural pedigree of the airport, so there’s no need to get into it again, but photographing these structures from the ground has been one of the most challenging and rewarding projects of my career. Just a few months ago I was tasked with revamping imagery for LAWA, and our shot list included some of the more iconic pieces of architecture at the airport. While I won’t go so far as to say schlepping cases of camera equipment around the inner terminal loop amongst hordes of angry drivers was my idea of a fun time, overcoming the logistical and physical hurdles involved with this job was well worth the effort. After a scout day in which we timed nearly every shot down to the minute, we spent about 12 hours making some killer imagery. As crowd control is out of the question at a working international airport, the compositions had to be spot on to allow the randomness of passersby to fill in the composition in a pleasing way.

After photographing the gate and pier areas, we moved on to the central terminal area, which is really the new face of LAX these days. With enormous sprawling ceilings and a tranquil feel so far removed from the older terminals, it’s actually quite relaxing to work in.

After a full morning in the terminal, we moved outside to capture exteriors. Heading up to the top of the old control tower was a highlight – a location I have visited a few times before, but this time we had a different goal in mind: capturing three LAX icons in a single image. In the foreground is the iconic Theme Building, and going further back the ATC tower and TBIT are both visible. This shot is one of my favorites as it really communicates the design intent of the TBIT – waves from the ocean approaching the shore, coming right up against the ‘shaggy palm tree’ of the control tower. Slightly kitsch, maybe, but totally California. The mid-century mod Theme Building is just icing on the cake.

With some of our most iconic shots in the can, we moved on to capturing some ground-level work for various uses by LAWA. Of course, besides more Theme Building goodness, we photographed the just-completed curbside appeal projects which added LED lights and a bit of color to the traffic loop, making it a much more Los Angeles experience. LA has never been afraid of experimenting with futuristic architecture and what better place to add a little Blade Runner vibe than the airport?

In just a few years’ time, the Landside Modernization Access Program and Midfield Satellite Concourse will both be finished. The Midfield Satellite Concourse will add an entirely new terminal to the west of Tom Bradley, bringing huge capacity increases to the already maxed-out ground operation at LAX. 11 new gates in the first phase, with I believe 22 new gates by the completion of the entire project, will be a welcome addition to ease some congestion at  the airport. In addition, I’m super excited to have an entirely new terminal to photograph! The design of this terminal will echo that of Tom Bradley, continuing on the shoreline theme with wide open interiors and lots of natural light. The Landside Modernization Access Program will finally make it easy to access LAX via public transportation, and again, I’m psyched to make pictures of that when it opens – talk about a complete engineering marvel.

So there you have it – my obsession with LAX summed up in one place. I can’t wait to see how this body of work continues to evolve over the coming years, and I’m certainly probing the idea of a photography book that focuses just on the airport – one of the most beautiful in the world, in its own quirky little way.

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Comment ( 1 )

  • Ryan

    You are living the dream – and we are a little jealous. Beautiful work Mike. Keep it up and thanks for sharing your photos, words, and love of aviation!!


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