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How Airline Pilot and Instagram Star Adam Senatori Gets Perspective from 1,400 Feet

Adam Senatori

Adam Senatori remembers that long, cold walk down the gangplank. It was 2005, the airline industry was still reeling from the downturn that followed 9/11, and the Wisconsin native had taken a buyout from his job as a commercial aviator and airline Captain. It was a heavy, potentially life altering moment for the pilot: ever since he could walk, the only thing he had ever wanted to do was fly, preferably behind the control of a commercial aircraft, the bigger the better. Now it was over, and he couldn’t help but wonder if he would he ever feel it again—that power and perspective, the rush and the beauty. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” he says looking back. “I didn’t know if I would ever return.”

Senatori, 40, seems to bring up this pivotal moment in his life quite a lot lately, but it’s more in wonderment over how things have turned out than with any sort of regret. Contrary to the fears that gnawed at him that day, Senatori has spent as much if not more time in flight in the past nine years then he did during his days as a commercial airline pilot. Not only that, but as perhaps the most celebrated aerial photographer on social media—he boasts some 875,000 followers on Instagram alone—he has been able to share with people around the planet the ineffable joy that drew him to the sky in the first place.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still miss flying large aircrafts filled with passengers into the major cities,” says Senatori, who has logged 6,200 air miles but these days leaves the piloting to others now that he is a photographer. “But I have found a unique niche right now that is definitely satiating this profound need that I have always possessed.”

For Senatori, that niche is a finely-tuned endorphin cocktail that comes from soaring above the earth and then having your visions of such excursions liked and commented on by thousands of complete strangers. “We have never seen anything like the immediacy of Instagram in our lifetime,” says Senatori, a self-described early adopter who joined the social media site in early 2011 and was making lists of accounts to follow soon after. “It’s just a powder keg for feedback on your work. Before Instagram, you had gallery openings, maybe reviews in a magazine, and that was about it. There was never anything like the day in day out back and forth that Instagram allows. You hit ‘send,’ it goes out around the world, and people from twelve timezones away have liked it before you can even blink your eye.”

The ‘likes’ have come from individuals and corporations both. Last year General Electric gave Senatori the job of shooting their larger-than-life machines for the website based on the strength of a picture he took of an Iowa wind farm. “They send me around the world photographing these beautiful brand new aircraft—jumbo jets, and 787’s,” says Senatori. “So I still get to be around these great planes, but instead of flying them, I’m shooting them. I get to use this completely other side of my brain.”

Feeding the unquenchable maw of the Internet and while at the same time meeting his own exacting standards as an artist can be a maddening challenge, one he wasn’t always sure he was always up for. “I consider it a beast, a machine I need to keep shoveling full of coal because the engine will use it as fast as it will burn,” says Senatori, in Los Angeles to shoot the city for the first time. “A year ago, I didn’t think I could keep the pace that I felt was being demanded of me. Each photo I send out, I want to consider one of my best. But with Instagram, that almost isn’t enough: I feel like I’m pushed to constantly produce masterpieces, which can be good and bad. In this past year for some reason—maybe it’s just getting jobs—I just got into this zone. I’m not only producing a lot, but [it’s] the best stuff I ever have.”

Currently, after spending his first years as an aerial photographer shooting the rural landscapes surrounding his Madison, Wisconsin home, that work mainly focuses on the industrial remains and sprawling infrastructure of huge cities. During his week in L.A., he shot the oversized coastal mansions of Orange County, downtown highway interchanges at rush hour, and shipment containers at the USA’s largest seaport. “I’m really driven to shoot huge things, the biggest things in the biggest cityscapes that I can find,” says Senatori, who uses Google Earth to meticulously storyboard his aerial excursions.

While he came to his artistic life rather late—his photography career started well after he left the airline industry and stuck his iPhone 4 out the window of a plane for a snapshot while working as flight instructor—he grew up with a background much more befitting a fine artist than a flight junkie. His father was the artistic director of an ad agency, while his mom taught art history. At a young age, she introduced Senatori to 17th Century Dutch landscape painters like Jacob Von Ruisdael and Jacob and Phillips Koninck. “The way those painting depicted light and clouds always just stuck with me,” says Senatori. “I never set out to simulate that style but it just kind of came out of me as I began to find my way as a photographer and to this day, that is how I tend to shoot.”

His other major influence? He didn't realize it until he started reading the same Busytown books he devoured as a kid to his own 3-year-old son, but the work of ubiquitous children's author Richard Scarry instilled in Senatori a fascination with both infrastructure and seeing people go about the business of their daily lives. “Those detailed illustrations of vehicles and roads—I had forgotten how much that helped shape how I view the world,” he says.

Senatori has plans both immediate—this fall, he’ll raise the ante on his recent Los Angeles cityscapes by taking on New York City—and longterm. “I want to get into environmental work, and I’m figuring out just how to approach it,” says Senatori. “I want to document the world as I see it, and go back and revisit it in the future, and show first hand what is happening to the world. How do I show the change in the light? How do I present environmental disaster? And how do I do that within the style that I’ve developed? The idea is to stop people in their tracks with something that is at once beautiful and also forces the question, ‘What is that scar on the earth?’”

What is without question will be Senatori’s perspective on the issue, which will be somewhere around 1,400 feet, a bird’s altitude, and the perfect one to tell a complete story about what is going on down below. “Flying is at the foundation of who I am,” he says. “You fly and you are looking down, and in each one of these houses, each one of these cars and office buildings, there are unique tensions, dynamics, fights, relationships, good news, bad news, the life’s regular goings-on. You go along seeing these houses, imagining those stories—It really puts humanity in perspective.” Adds Senatori almost sheepishly, “I recognize that is bit a cliche, but in my line of work I think it all the time: Man, we are so, so small.”