I’ve never quite understood the subculture of plane spotters, the aeronautics enthusiasts who spend their days outside of airports, watching and photographing jets as they roar overhead. But AirCraft: Jet As Art, a series by longtime plane spotter and photographer Jeffrey Milstein, helps to explain the fascination.
Milstein shows us the complicated underbelly of the plane, a perspective that only airport mechanics get to see regularly. From below, the planes look vulnerable and heavy, like injured birds of prey. In fact, Milstein compares his process to “shooting a moving duck,” in terms of the shutter speed and precision necessary to capture an object moving at hundreds of miles per hour, several hundred feet over head. “The planes are moving so fast, and I have only a hundredth of a second to get my shot. I have to keep the camera moving with the plane and then fire the shot exactly at the top dead center,” he tells Smithsonian Magazine, which covered a show of his work at the Air and Space Museum last year. “It took a lot of practice.”
Aircraft spotters are typically drawn to planes from early childhood, and Milstein is no different. “As a child I loved to go to the end of the runway in L.A., where I grew up, and have the planes fly very low right overhead on landing,” he said a few years ago. “I loved the feeling of being so close. It was scary, too.” He took his first plane photograph when he was 14, and still shoots regularly at runway 24R at LAX.
“I’ve been shooting at LAX for so many years that I know all of the landing patterns of all of the different airlines,” he says. “The ideal weather is cloudy and bright, like a big bright lightbox.” Lightbox is definitely the right way to describe the frame. Through Milstein’s lens, these half-million-pound machines look like delicate insects, pinned down in a naturalist’s personal collection.