Do look down: how daredevil artist Donn Delson shoots from the sky

<span>Donn Delson: ‘I want people to feel like you’re in a helicopter with no door’</span><span>Photograph: Donn Delso</span>
Donn Delson: ‘I want people to feel like you’re in a helicopter with no door’Photograph: Donn Delso

Streaks of red bunting zigzagging through Chinatown, tents for garden parties pitched in Buckingham Palace and secret roof gardens tucked into the tops of city skyscrapers. This is a side of London most people never see – unless they are hanging out of a helicopter.

Which is what the 75-year-old daredevil artist Donn Delson does, all to bring a fresh perspective on familiar places to people on the ground.

“Art is about creating a story and evoking emotion, giving people an experience they might not otherwise have had. I want people to feel like you’re in a helicopter with no door,” he said.

“I try to express a lesson I learned, that things aren’t always what they seem at first glance. It’s good when you take a beat to look at something and give a second consideration as to what it is and what it means to you as a person.”

Delson, based in Los Angeles, takes his photos by flying around for a couple of hours in a doorless helicopter until he identifies a target image. The pilot then turns the helicopter on its side, enabling Delson to suspend himself and angle his camera to capture an image taken directly overhead that needs to be “tack sharp”, despite buffeting winds. He then blows these up into large canvases that measure about 2.5 metres by 3.5 metres.

London is one of his favourite cities to photograph thanks to its unusual urban topography – a mix of old and new architecture that has sprouted up in erratic, organic combination, and surprising bursts of colour in its plethora of parks.

When the Guardian joined Delson to get an insight into his work, flying around the city at about the height of the Shard (310 metres), London became a different, breathtaking place. Neighbourhoods that feel distinct on the ground merged into a chaotic mishmash of skyscrapers of varying heights, contrasting with orderly rows of Victorian terraces, punctuated by tower blocks and interspersed with the parks’ bright shocks of green and the blue-grey Thames snaking through.

“From above, buildings take on a whole different look – all of a sudden there’s lines, there’s patterns. In this city there’s even colour – people jokingly tell me London has no colour – London is extremely colourful from the air,” Delson said.

Rather than documentary photography, he is looking to capture the unexpected that can be glimpsed only from this unusual vantage point. Familiar forms on the ground become abstract images when seen from the air, often resembling the explorations of colour and form contained in work by Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Bauhaus artists.

Delson has travelled around the world in pursuit of the perfect, “serendipitous” shot. Among his favourites are the “breathtakingly beautiful” Missoni-esque desert striations next to the teal Dead Sea, a shot of Mount Fuji perfectly framed by fluffy white clouds, and a rare capturing of a rainbow in a 360° circle in Molokai, Hawaii.

He is also interested in optical illusions, which are the subject of a forthcoming exhibition on shipping container art in Phoenix, Arizona, inspired by an earlier piece picturing rows of coloured shipping containers resembling keys, which he named Xylophone.

Delson has also photographed rows of Japanese cherry blossoms for an image named Abacus, taken a shot of perfectly symmetrical parasols on a beach titled Space Invaders in homage to the arcade game’s aesthetic, and parked vans in the shape of a wine bottle, ironically titled Bottleneck.

“I’m kind of obsessed with the concept of perception and appearance versus reality, and a lot of my art, in my points of view collection, what I look for is a trompe l’oeil.

“I’m taking a photograph that is lifelike and I’m turning it on its side a little bit and making it something that tricks the eye and has a whimsical name to it. All of a sudden it’s something different than what you think it is.”