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BY NORMAN BORDEN | Talk about having a point of view. Jeffrey Milstein has taken aerial photography to a new level in “Leaning Out,” and the results are stunning, fascinating, and mesmerizing. The 14 large format images in this exhibition of cityscapes, airports, power plants, train yards, and other industrial and transportation sites reflect the artist’s life-long love affair with flying, and with the way things look from the air.
“I started when I was 16 when I was learning to fly in Los Angeles at Santa Monica airport,” Milstein recalled. “I had an 8mm movie camera and used to fly around LA taking movies from the air.” About seven years ago, the artist (who received his BA in architecture from UC Berkeley in 1968) decided to “turn the lens downward from up above” and began photographing sites in Los Angeles and New York from the air. Many of the pictures he shot are in his recently published book “LANY: Aerial Photographs of Los Angles and New York.” Some are also in “Leaning Out” along with new work that has never been exhibited before.
When asked how he decides what sites to photograph, Milstein explained, “I concentrate on how things look from the air, mostly on the man-made landscapes. As an architect, I’m interested in cities and how they form — what is the geology and geography, their development, structures, and open spaces.”
In looking at how things connect from above, he mentioned the image “NYC Fifth Avenue” that he photographed in 2016 from a small plane, 2,000 feet up. “The picture has some of the same features you’d find on a computer board where information is traveling along highways,” Milstein said, “but instead it’s taxis traveling down roads instead of electrons down pathways… Certain things happen at different levels and I’m kind of fascinated with that; I kind of look for patterns and geometry, things you wouldn’t see from the ground at all.”
Looking closely at this image, the cruciform of St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands out as one of the more identifiable landmarks (it helps to orient the viewer to the other buildings). The other way to enjoy this photograph — and to better appreciate what the artist saw from the air — is to step back and view it from about six feet away.
When Milstein decided to photograph New York City from above, he and a pilot friend started flying to the city and around the airports. “My friend would fly my Cessna 182 so I could do the shooting if we got permission,” the artist recalled, “or we’d go above the restricted area if we didn’t. He would make steep turns so I could shoot down through an open window. I wanted to photograph New York City but to do that, you need a helicopter or fly 7,500 feet above the control area.”
Eager to continue shooting, Milstein began renting small helicopters and had the pilots remove the doors before they took off so he’d be leaning out. “I have a small gyroscope attached to a high resolution digital camera so I can shoot without it shaking too much.” He characterized it as a “big heavy camera that costs as much as an SUV,” but that’s what he needs to make large gallery prints. In fact, six images in the show are 52 1/2 x 70 inches and have an amazing amount of detail. One of them — and one of those never exhibited before — is “Bayview Auto Wreckers, Staten Island, 2.” Who would have thought a junkyard could be so artful or symbolic? A close look reveals rows and rows of car doors and bumpers, a dumpster filled with engines, as well as the requisite piles of assorted auto junk. From the air, the site may appear to have a certain amount of random artfulness, but Milstein explains that one of his interests in photography is how everything, including our bodies, eventually decays, try as we may to avoid it.
Referencing another image, “Toyotas, Port of Long Beach,” he said, “The beautiful shiny new cars are unloaded and lined up perfectly… and they eventually end up as wrecks, some of them to be ground up and crushed or shipped back overseas to be reincarnated. It’s the cycle of life and death and I find a strange beauty in the decay state — nature always has its way.” As another example, the artist mentioned “NYC Coney Island Subway Yard,” a tableau that includes some rusting subway cars parked literally at the end of the line. He explained, “The train parts are lying on the ground with weeds growing in them and train cars are filled with garbage bags. Everyone has a closet or garage like that, with stuff we no longer use but don’t get rid of.”
With airplanes and airports being Milstein’s life-long passion, it’s no surprise that his two favorite images in “Leaning Out” are “Gatwick 2 Planes” and “Newark #8, Terminal B.” What’s interesting is how different these two airport photographs are from each other — to me, the beauty of the Gatwick picture is its utter simplicity; the two almost toy-like jet planes are perfectly positioned, complementing the geometry of the mosaic runway and surrounding grass. In contrast, the Newark image is complicated, with five airplanes parked at the terminal’s gates like spokes in a hub. The baggage carts are barely visible, but are parts of the whole; the shadows add another dimension.
Despite flying with his plane’s window open or the helicopter door off, Milstein says “I’m not a daredevil. I love flying, I love being up in the helicopter at night with the door off. Between pictures, I just look out at all of it and think like this is in a dream.”
Through March 17 at Benrubi Gallery (521 W. 26th St./2nd Floor, btw. 10th & 11th Aves.). Hours: Tues.–Sat., 10am–6pm. Visit benrubigallery.com or call 212-888-6007. For artist info, visit jeffreymilstein.com.