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Think of California, and you probably think of the beaches of Southern California, the vineyards of Napa Valley, or the verdant Yosemite Valley. Thomas Heinser’s surreal photographs offer a look at the other California, one parched by drought. His aerial photographs of charred hillsides, depleted reservoirs, and barren salt ponds are not at all what you’d expect of a place nicknamed the Golden State.

El Niño has doused much of the state this winter and Sierra snowpack is as much as 121 percent of normal in places, but it isn’t enough to offset a drought that’s entering its fifth year. Heinser’s photos, part of an ongoing series Reduziert, is a reminder of just how arid things have been. The word is German for “reduced,” an apt description of what the dry spell has done to the landscape. “[It’s] about as minimalistic as it gets,” Heinser says.

The German photographer has spent the past three decades in California, which has gone through droughts before. But this one is especially brutal. The last two water years (which end on September 30) were the driest on record, and last saw the lowest Sierra snowpack ever recorded. Even with El Niño boosted rains in 2016, currently about 83 percent of California is under severe drought conditions, which in addition to decimating crops and draining reservoirs has led to some epic fires. Some 8745 wildfires consumed almost 900,000 acres last year alone.

Heinser was inspired to document the issue two years ago when he spotted a parched almond orchard while driving on Interstate 5 in the Central Valley. “It looked like a cemetery,” he says.

Heinser, who has been shooting aerial landscapes for about a decade, hired a pilot to fly him over the fields, lakes, and reservoirs of the Central Valley and the vast salt evaporation ponds on the southern end of San Francisco Bay. They set out each day just after sunrise, when the light casts long shadows. Buckled in tightly, Heinser shot from a helicopter with the doors taken off, using a pair of gyroscopes to stabilize a Hasselbad medium format camera with a Phase 1 digital back.

The photos border on the surreal. Lake McClure is etched undulating rings like a dirty bathtub, each indicating where the water level once stood. Barren fields are etched with patterns left by irrigation wheels and other equipment. Hillsides are charred by fires. “They’re amazing moon-like landscapes,” he says. As beautiful as the photos are, Heinser hopes they prompt reflection on California’s environmental future.

“It’s important to engage with environmental changes,” he says. “I don’t think we as humans can survive if we are not concerning ourselves with what we are doing to the environment.”

Reduziert is on view at the G16 Gallery in San Francisco through March 18.

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