When he was a teenager, photographer Jeffrey Milstein swept out hangars at the Santa Monica airport in exchange for the chance to fly a Cessna 150 around Los Angeles. Today, he rents helicopters to capture aerial shots of the urban landscape. His meticulously composed photographs render a killer view of cities that most of us never see.
Before he took up photography professionally, Milstein was an architect; that influences how he interprets the landscape. He embarks on a flight with some vague idea of what he wants to shoot, then hones in on shapes, recurring motifs, and patterns. He uses digital cameras and angles them straight down. “I thought of calling this a ‘plan’ view, because the images look like architectural plans,” he says.
Milstein photographs from about 2,000 feet in the air, an elevation that affords a sense of proximity and remoteness in his shots. You can see all the layers in a city—streets, trees, cars, houses—and still get the scenic vista. Milstein is fascinated by the makeup of neighborhoods and how you can glean a lot of information just based on the colors and shapes present. “You can I.D. affluence immediately by a neighborhood,” he says. “In an affluent neighborhood it’s green for trees and blue for pools; the streets are curved and winding. Poorer areas are gray and brown and set on a grid. You can quickly see the differences in how people live.”
Milstein’s work is on view in two concurrent shows, one at the Benrubi Gallery in New York and another at the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, both open until August 22. The subject matter ranges from housing developments like Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan and Park La Brea in Los Angeles; tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building; and infrastructure like ports. What unites them all is a perspective that makes them look like tessellations and puzzles.
“I like to find order in the chaos,” Milstein says. “Part of it is looking for the patterns in cities—like some molecular structure with mathematical order to it.”