Memorial Day 2015 is upon us—and, with it, the unofficial start of the summer season. In New York City, thousands of people will crowd the five boroughs’ beaches and pools, putting behind them the long winter months and their freezing temperatures.
For German photographer Tobias Hutzler, Memorial Day is the perfect example of what makes New York so attractive. “I’m fascinated by the energy of this city,” he says. “It’s pure life.”
Ever since he moved to New York, Hutzler has been documenting how people interact with the city, often shooting from a ladder or a cherry picker to find a different angle.
A year ago, during Memorial Day, he took to the sky, boarding a helicopter to photograph the city’s parks, pools and beaches. “I’d open the door, strap myself, stand up and lean out so I could shoot straight down,” he tells TIME. “I wanted my images to be very graphic, so I shot around noon when the sun was straight up. There are no shadows, so it’s really about the people — the constellations of people.”
Hutzler’s images are devoid of any distracting landmarks or features, concentrating instead on New Yorkers and how they appropriate these spaces. “I like the abstraction of it,” he says. “It’s not about the iconic places. I’m really interested in the people and the energy. My work is a study of the variety of life, and that’s what makes New York City such a great place: this juxtaposition of colors and people. It’s so beautiful and complex.”
To produce these images, Hutzler partnered with the firm NYonAir, which owns a fleet of helicopters. “The pilots know what I’m looking for, they know the visuals I like,” he says. “To get these images, you have to hover at a certain altitude and at a certain angle. I’m working with a very long lens, and I have heavy stabilizers on the cameras as it can be very shaky.”
Hutzler works fast. His subjects often have no idea he’s there, hanging from a helicopter 300 feet above ground. “It’s a quick shot and we’re already gone,” he says. “It’s like shooting on the streets.”
Tobias Hutzler is a German advertising and editorial photographer based in New York.
Kira Pollack, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.