Atlantic Cities

The Art of Capturing a City From a Rooftop

The Art of Capturing a City From a Rooftop
Image courtesy of Tom Ryaboi

A few weeks ago, Kelly Chan showed the work of Detroit photographer Dennis Maitland, who took photos of his feet dangling from the tops of high buildings from his "Life on the Edge" series. Turns out Maitland's alone out there on his perch. A whole subculture of urban photographers are "rooftopping" - ascending tall buildings to capture shots of city life from high above the busy streets.

A veteran of that circuit, Tom Ryaboi has been working the rooftops of his native Toronto and other cities since 2007. "Maybe it's because I've always had cats," says the 27-year-old, whose Twitter handle is R00ftopper. "Who really knows?" We called up to Ryaboi for some thoughts about views from the top, city life on the ground, and what exactly it takes to frighten someone who's willing to scale skyscrapers just to snap a photo.

What is it about seeing the city from high up that you find so inspiring?

I'll try to paint you the picture - the whole metropolis is at the tip of your fingers. You're above everything, like the king of the city. Everything slows down. The only thing you can hear is your thoughts. It's like poetry in motion.

And yet you've said that height isn't necessarily what makes a great shot. What does?

Being nestled in between the big buildings is often the best place to go rooftopping. You really get a sense of the urban jungle from these lower roofs.

One of my favorite shots is "All grown up." What are we looking at here, and what you do recall of the scene?

We're looking at Toronto's condo-boom vision realized. I wish I could show you what this photo would have looked like eight to ten years ago. Of course I can't because the building I shot it from wasn't there. Eighty percent of what is in this picture wasn't there then. I recall reflecting on how far the city had come in such a short time. It's a big city now. I feel like I've watched it "grow up."

Looking at "State of Devine" — I suspect the motivation here was to see the back of that sign. Generally speaking, how do you decide which buildings to scale for your shots?

This was shot on a recent trip to Philadelphia. The sign was definitely something that caught my eye. I remember thinking how unique it looked, and how rare it is to be on a building with one of these signs. They just don't make them like that anymore.

That's what I look for when scouting for buildings: something unique, broken, off.

I understand you try to blend in with people in buildings you're trying to scale — dressing like office workers or even construction workers. What's been your most challenging project in terms of access?

My arch nemesis, one of the tallest here in Canada. I tried to go on this roof for 11 months without any luck. It became an obsession. I would have dreams about it. The rooftopping community was starting to mock me. I would drive by it on my way to places, even if it wasn't on the way. Another rooftopper said, "It can't be done. Forget about it."

The truth is, I never really had the slightest of doubts it was going to happen. One day as I walked by like so many times before I finally had the answer to that question: What am I looking for? I'll know it when I see it, and there it was — an opening.

You're obviously not afraid of heights, whereas it's difficult for me even to look at a picture like "Flight of the Roof Topper." What does scare you?

Public speaking.

Others have followed you into the rooftopping field. Does it surprise you that rooftopping has become so popular, considering that it's, well, rather dangerous?

No risk, no reward. This thing, whatever it is, is beautiful, and I encourage everyone to try it at least once. [Editor's note: The Atlantic Cities does not encourage everyone to try it at least once.]

When you're on the ground, as opposed to a roof, what are the things you enjoy about living in a city?

I love the big city and everything that comes with it. There's nothing more beautiful than this smash-up of concrete, steel, and glass, and how we all go about our lives in and around it. I love the endless possibilities and opportunities each and every time you leave your home. Anything can happen — it really feels like that in the big city, more than anywhere else.

All images courtesy of Tom Ryaboi via his blursurfing photoblog.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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