'Tree of Life,' a shot of Koehn Lake in the Mojave Desert at sunset, won first place in the non-professional nature category for the International Photography Awards.

'Tree of Life,' a shot of Koehn Lake in the Mojave Desert at sunset, won first place in the non-professional nature category of the International Photography Awards. (Jassen Todorov)

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

Jassen Todorov doesn’t seem possible. He’s an aerial photographer, a licensed pilot, a music professor at S.F. State and an acclaimed violinist whose concerts take him around the world.

“If I’m well organized — which often times I’m not — I can fly the plane, I can play my violin, I can teach, I can take pictures and I can take a second flight at sunset,” said Todorov, 40, who lives in San Francisco.

He grew up in Bulgaria in a family of musicians and started playing the violin at age 5. When he was 17, he was given a full scholarship to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Southern California. His music has been getting attention for almost two decades. Now his photographs are being noticed, too.

This month Todorov’s picture of Koehn Lake in the Mojave Desert won a first-place International Photography Award and he was named Nature Photographer of the Year in the contest’s non-professional nature category, which drew 2,449 entries. Earlier this year, his image of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone finished second in the Sony World Photography Awards.

He shot Koehn Lake in August. His winning picture looks more like a painting than a photograph. Todorov thinks it resembles a magical forest, but it actually illustrates the effects of wind and time on a dry lake in Kern County.

“I stumbled upon it around sunset. There’s nobody there and it’s very remote,” said Todorov. “When you’re performing, you get a natural high. It was the same kind of feeling. I had goosebumps when I was shooting it. These abstract shots are the ones I love the most. This is nature’s art.”

He began flying in 2002 and is now licensed as a private, instrument-rated and commercial pilot, and a flight instructor, too. Five years ago, he bought a four-seat 1976 Piper Warrior, which he keeps at San Carlos Airport. It can go for 5½ hours at a stretch at 120 mph — roughly from San Francisco to Twin Falls, Idaho.

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park is one of Jassen Todorov's favorite subjects.
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park is one of Jassen Todorov’s favorite subjects. (Jassen Todorov)

Todorov’s mix of skills and passions might seem improbable, but not to him.

“We have a lot of patterns and repetition in music. There’s a lot of discipline,” he said. “There are rules, but when you break them — that’s when it gets exciting. When you apply all of that to a new art form, you can advance quite fast. Music and photography are very similar in many ways.”

There are other parallels, too.

“I can talk to people about what I’ve seen, but then I show them some pictures and they go ‘wow’ immediately,” he said. “That’s the power of still photos. I can explain to you what Bach sounds like, but you hear it and it transcends you to a different reality.”

Todorov’s fascination with flying started a long time ago. He began collecting models of cars and airplanes when he was 5, and about 200 of them can still be found in his house in Bulgaria. His grandfather used to take him to the airport in Sofia to watch the planes come and go.

“The whole idea of traveling, of exploration, of discovery, seemed so fascinating,” he said. “It’s much more interesting to see the world from above. Flying gives you wings! Who doesn’t want to have wings?”

The rivers of Iceland, seen from above, look more like abstract art than anything that actually exists in nature.
The rivers of Iceland, seen from above, look more like abstract art than anything that actually exists in nature. (Jassen Todorov)

He was sitting in the kitchen of the house he rents in the Ingleside, a 15-minute walk from S.F. State. In the past 12 years, Todorov has taught classes there in chamber music literature, string methods, music appreciation, fundamentals theory and career management in music. He has also given private violin lessons to undergrads and graduate students — as well as actor Richard Gere, to help him prep for his role in “Bee Season.”

Although teaching and concerts are, as he puts it, his “primary assignment,” photography has become an obsession in the last three years, since he decided to seriously pursue it.

Todorov had just returned from a flight around the West that covered six states and 2,000 miles in four days. He’d shot about 800 pictures and had already posted some on his Facebook page. But he was still editing and happy to relive the trip through the photographs on his laptop.

“You think of fields of potatoes when you think of Idaho. But they have these fields of craters. … Here are reflections of clouds on a lake in Utah. … I was 1,000 feet above Old Faithful here. … Nevada is full of these red rocks. … Look at these rivers of mud in Death Valley. Even though it’s terrible, it’s incredible to photograph.”

This photo of a kitesurfer in the Pacific Ocean, just south of Half Moon Bay, was taken on an extremely windy day.
This photo of a kitesurfer in the Pacific Ocean, just south of Half Moon Bay, was taken on an extremely windy day. (Jassen Todorov)

On average, Todorov flies twice a week. So far, he’s racked up more than 2,000 hours of flying time since he got his license. He keeps a folding bike in his plane so that he can quickly get where he wants to go if he decides to land and take pictures from the ground. He used to lug along a bag full of charts, but now he relies on ForeFlight, an app on his iPad, for all his navigation needs.

His current camera is a Nikon D810, with a 70-200mm zoom lens. He holds it with his left hand and shoots with his right through a small open window. The camera is heavy — about 5 pounds — and Todorov lifts it up to demonstrate its heft. Then he brings out his Tomaso Eberle violin, which was made in Naples in 1778.

“To put it in perspective, Mozart was 22 and Beethoven was only 8 when my violin was made,” he said. “But it’s kind of like the camera. If you have a better instrument, it allows you to better express yourself. With music you want an older instrument. The more it ages, the more it starts to flourish. But with technology, in a year or two my camera won’t be so relevant.”

Even with the best equipment, though, clarity and sharpness can be elusive. But Todorov enjoys the challenge. He was dealing with high winds and turbulence at 11,000 feet when he shot his award-winning photo of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone.

“You really want to take advantage of the morning light and the sunset light,” he said. “Sometimes I get lucky and sometimes I don’t. If I don’t, there’s always tomorrow.”

People in Candaba, a town in the Philippines about two hours north of Manila, are using canoes to get to their homes after a terrible flood in fall 2015.
People in Candaba, a town in the Philippines about two hours north of Manila, are using canoes to get to their homes after a terrible flood in fall 2015. (Jassen Todorov)

His pictures have been published by National Geographic, The Guardian, China News, USA Today, The Telegraph and several other media outlets, and they’ve been exhibited in London and Chicago. In August, National Geographic asked him to be a guest editor for its “Your Shot From Above” assignment — which entailed reviewing 17,442 photographs before picking 29 winners.

Still, there’s no doubt that music comes first, to the point that Todorov did not have time to go to New York to accept his prize for the Koehn Lake picture, presented Oct. 27 at the Lucie Awards in Carnegie Hall — the same venue where he’s performed twice as a musician.

On the other hand, traveling for performances gives him more opportunities to take pictures, and he often rents a plane. When he was in the Philippines in early October for a concert, he captured the struggles of people trying to reach their homes by canoe after a huge flood in the town of Candaba.

“It’s a very humbling experience,” said Todorov. “It puts the problems of myself and my friends in perspective.”

He had a similar reaction shooting the oil fields surrounding Taft in Kern County. “It’s so polluted here,” he said. “This is what we do to ourselves. The oil rigs look like ticks sucking the blood from the earth.”

Jassen Todorov has taken many photographs of downtown San Francisco in all kinds of weather.
Jassen Todorov has taken many photographs of downtown San Francisco in all kinds of weather. (Jassen Todorov)

The more isolated a place is, the better, as far as Todorov is concerned. “Sometimes I feel like a pioneer,” he said. “Many of the places I fly, there’s not a single soul for hundreds of miles. When I’m in these areas, my greatest inspiration is Bach and his music.”

He often listens to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms with his iPod when he’s flying, making his trips even more surreal. But it doesn’t take music to do that.

“When my girlfriend and I were flying to Wyoming, there was a hawk next to us at 11,000 feet,” he said. “You don’t think of hawks as going that high. And every once in a while, there are a lot of beautiful birds. They’re moving and I’m moving. One day I saw a huge flock of egrets taking off from the salts in San Francisco Bay.”

But Todorov’s outings are not always so ethereal. He recently landed in Kayenta, which is on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The residents were surprised to see him pedaling through town on his folding bicycle, and a few invited him into their homes. That went well. On his way out of town, though, three large canines started chasing him.

“I was imagining myself being ripped apart by these dogs,” he said. “They eventually gave up but it took awhile. I rode so fast. I couldn’t wait to get back in the plane.”

Another time, coming back from Utah, he spotted trails — the kind made by aerobatic aircraft — on the right side of his plane. “And then I felt crazy turbulence,” he said. “People were shooting manmade rockets. They could have shot me down. I could have exploded. Talk about the Wild West.”

Not scary but even stranger: In December 2013, he was returning from Mono Lake and flying over the Sierra when he shot a sunset photo with his cellphone to send to his mother and girlfriend. But he dropped the device and it fell 11,000 feet into the snow. Eight months later, someone found it on a trail. There wasn’t a scratch.

“These kinds of things, when they occur, you think: Is that a dream?” Todorov said.

Jassen Todorov stands in front of his plane, a four-seater 1976 Piper Warrior that can fly almost six hours at a stretch.
Jassen Todorov stands in front of his plane, a four-seater 1976 Piper Warrior that can fly almost six hours at a stretch. (Alex Bederov)

His favorite photos are from this past summer, when he went to Iceland. “The rivers of Iceland are probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” he said. “Volcanic ash mixed with water — I could not stop photographing. It looks so out of this world.”

But he doesn’t have to go far to get other amazing shots. South of Half Moon Bay, he captured a kitesurfer in the Pacific.

“I went flying on a windy day,” he said. “When it gets very windy, you can’t take pictures because the plane is shaking. I thought, ‘I must be the only crazy person out and about.’ Then I saw another crazy person. I saw the shape, the kite and the shadow of the kite. And then I saw him.”

It’s just one example of how aerial photography has changed his view of the world.

“I see things I did not see before,” Todorov said. “And I get into a different dimension. When I’m playing music, it’s not part of reality. It’s the same with taking pictures when I’m flying.”

A Musician’s Aerial Photography Takes Art to New Heights 2 November,2015Patricia Yollin
  • JustWatching

    pictures are nice. Site is kind of a techno-mess. Every gadget known to man is embedded somewhere on this page. Start with the share gadget permanently overlaid on the opening picture, the left/right nav arrows that magically appear and disappear, click on a picture and you may or not be on the same page (back arrow back? click to magnify). But the pictures are nice.

  • Emily Barlett

    Pictures are wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

Author

Patricia Yollin

Pat Yollin has written about all kinds of stuff, including wayward penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, organ transplants, the comeback of the cream puff, New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a Slow Food gathering in Italy and the microcredit movement in Northern California. Among her favorite stories: an interview with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch, a profile of Italy's consul general in SF, and a pirate Trader Joe's operation in Vancouver that prompted the grocery chain to sue -- and lose.