Music professor’s photography soars to acclaim

Jason poses by his airplane at an airport as the sun sets in the background.

Photo by Yeelee Foo

Jassen Todorov’s aerial pictures have received worldwide recognition

San Francisco State University Professor of Music Jassen Todorov recently reached an all-time high as a photographer — which is saying a lot for him. Not only was the acclaimed classical violinist and instructor one of the winners of the 2018 Smithsonian Photo Contest, he did it with one of his specialty shots: an aerial photograph snapped from the cockpit of his 1976 Piper Warrior plane.

Todorov won the 2018 National Geographic Photo Contest with this picture of recalled cars in the Mojave Desert.

The photo, depicting the bleak aftermath of the 2017 wildfires in Santa Rosa as seen from above, was named the winner in the American Experience category this spring. It wasn’t the first time Todorov has been honored for his photography: Last year another aerial shot — showing thousands of recalled cars lined up in the Mojave Desert — made him the grand prize winner of the National Geographic Photo Contest. Many of his other photos have won awards and been featured in magazines, newspapers and museums around the world.

That’s pretty impressive for someone who didn’t get serious about photography until five years ago and already had plenty to keep him busy between teaching at San Francisco State, guest-teaching and performing music in Europe and elsewhere, and flying. But Todorov says the amazing vistas he saw as a pilot inspired him to pick up a camera. He especially wanted to share the sadder sights, such as the abandoned cars in the desert or the toxic cleanup sites he’s flown over across the U.S.

“I see them as wounds in the Earth. There’s beauty and there’s destruction,” said Todorov, who’s taught at SF State for more than 15 years. “It makes me sad, and I think I need to take a picture and tell the story to bring it to the awareness of people who don’t have the opportunity to see the world from above.”

Originally from Bulgaria, Todorov has been piloting planes since the early 2000s. Though controlling an airplane and taking jaw-dropping photos might seem like a lot to juggle, Todorov says years of experience tackling intricate classical compositions was the perfect preparation.

“There’s usually not much random stuff in a classical musician’s mind,” he said. “Everything is very calculated, and you’re [monitoring] a million things.”

On one occasion, however, even Todorov found his hands too full. Flying over the Sierra Nevada in 2014 he pulled out his phone to capture a selfie with the mountains in the background. He accidentally dropped the device — from 12,000 feet. Eight months later, Todorov got a surprising call: Two hikers walking on the John Muir Trail had found the phone.

“The snow cushioned the impact of the phone,” said Todorov. “The snow melted in the summer, and the phone dried up and was sitting there. What are the odds of that?”

Todorov knows he got lucky that day. But he worries that our luck as a society is about to run out. As the impact of climate change becomes more and more clear, he hopes his photographs will help record its progression — and stir people to action — before it’s too late.

“It’s important to document nature as it is changing for future generations, and it’s important to document it as we are destroying nature,” he said. “I want to inspire people to feel something, whether I’m on stage performing music or on the plane as a photographer. I’m still a storyteller, and at the end of the day hopefully people feel my message.”

To view more of Todorov's photography, visit his Instagram page.