Leave no trace” is such a familiar command, encouraging us to tread lightly in wild spaces and minimize our ruinous impact on the natural world, that it’s been adopted by everyone from the Sierra Club, an august 128-year-old environmental organization, to Burning Man, an annual art-centric bacchanal in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Yet the mesmerizing large-format images of the arid American West by San Francisco aerial photographer Michael Light compel us to admit the futility of this conservationist principle.

For almost 20 years, Light’s ongoing photo series Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West (published in four stunning volumes by Radius Books, with one more planned) has documented the mammoth gouges, fissures, and calligraphic swirls we’ve etched into the Great Basin landscape, between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, with our mines, roads, hiking trails, and tire tracks. He likens his photographs to “gravestone rubbings of our mangled landscape.”

Light’s expansive work shows that we leave traces everywhere we go, from Utah’s miles-wide open-pit copper mine Bingham Canyon to the exurban fever dream sprawl of Las Vegas’s housing boom. Even on the lunar landscape, the subject of his groundbreaking 1999 book, Full Moon. (Based on Light’s digitizing of NASA’s master negatives from the nine Apollo missions, it’s one of the bestselling photography books ever published.)

“I’m not saying the leave-no-trace ethos is baloney, because it’s not, but it is interesting to truly look at what we do as a people and how and where we do it,” says Light of his most recent Some Dry Space volume, Lake Lahontan/Lake Bonneville. “I’m just looking for some clear-eyed honesty.”

michael light, shadow at 300’, 1300 hours, deep springs valley, california
Michael Light’s “Shadow at 300’, 1300 Hours, Deep Springs Valley, California” (May 2001).
©Michael Light

The latest book is named for the long-evaporated bodies of water that thousands of years ago covered much of the Great Basin’s 200,000-square-mile stretch of land, now encompassing the Great Salt Lake as well as the site of Burning Man’s desert playground.

“One of the reasons why the West is so appealing to me is that because it’s so arid, there isn’t a lot of plant life or rainfall erosion softening or covering up what we do to the land,” says Light. “The marks that we make aren’t hidden beneath a green forest. They’re visible, and they last a very long time.”

It turns out that when 80,000 Burning Man revelers pack up their massive kinetic sculptures and decamp from their temporary desert metropolis every summer (as Light did for many years himself), their vehicles leave exuberant spiraling track patterns in the arid terrain. The surprisingly graceful markings are easy to overlook from the ground, but from Light’s vantage point in the air they look remarkably similar to Brice Marden’s abstract paintings or Cy Twombly’s mystic scribblings.

“It’s a kind of graffiti, an unconscious glyphic we’re unaware of writing,” says Light. “There’s a kind of ecstatic flow to these sentences, but what do they mean?”

All of his aerial work is animated by that search for meaning in the push-pull between tabula rasa terrain and the ferocity of our human impact.

Light grew up on New York’s Long Island and learned to fly before he could drive, soloing gliders at 14. After moving west in 1986 at age 22 and earning an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, he found a perfect union in simultaneously embracing his twin passions, flight and photography.

Unlike prominent aerial photographers David Maisel and Jamey Stillings, or drone landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, Light pilots his own aircraft, a 600-pound carbon fiber single-engine plane that he keeps at a private airfield in San Rafael. He flies at low altitudes (sometimes down to 500 feet) while shooting with his Hasselblad camera pointed out the plane’s windowless sides.

“I enter into a super-heightened state of mind,” he told the Believer magazine. “It’s this difficult dialogue between empowerment and imperilment.”

michael light
Light pilots his own aircraft, a 600-pound carbon fiber single-engine plane, to take his images.
Christie Hemm Klok

In August 2020, Light got a tip from William L. Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Fox told him that an anonymous group of artist-activists had written “Black Lives Matter” across 17 miles of the Black Rock Desert playa in Helvetica letters measuring 50 feet wide by dragging a field groomer behind a truck.

Light flew to 12,500 feet—“essentially my ceiling,” he says—in order to capture the otherworldly sweep of the three-word declaration. Each letter, each word, and the phrase itself appear to “emerge from the roiling, stained pluvial landscape of the Black Rock Desert,” he says.

Even though he is a conservationist at heart, Light doesn’t see his art as defined by activism. “My process is one of intense movement, and it looks like dancing or writing,” he says of his flight patterns, “ecstatically swinging around making pictures in circles, waiting for the angle of the sun to be in exactly the right place.” He takes to the skies, he says, “looking for a more complex beauty and chasing the sublime.”

It seems the only one not leaving any visible tracks—other than the arresting images he produces—is Light himself.•

 Jessica Zack is a Bay Area journalist who writes about books, film, and visual culture.