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The Strange Beauty of Airports Photographed From Above

The Strange Beauty of Airports Photographed From Above
Jeffrey Millstein

Do airports have personalities? If so, JFK International Airport must possess a dark and complex intelligence: Broad flats of black pavement suggest an ocean of serene thoughts, while elsewhere snaking streams of roadways hint at either mathematical genius or full-blown schizophrenia.

But that's probably reading too much into the artwork of Jeffrey Milstein, a New Yorker who's given much of his life to documenting airplanes and their surroundings. Airports are just cool to look at, especially from way up in the sky where you can see the megalithic structures in their awesome entirety.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Milstein would often trek to LAX to film planes landing with his 8-millimeter videocamera. He spent so much time at the airport that he memorized the landing patterns. When he wasn't recording planes, he was gluing together model jets, reading magazines about the airline industry or training (successfully) to receive a pilot's license. He received an architecture degree in Berkeley but picked up the camera after taking a class with New York photo master Jay Maisel, and started devoting his time to hunting the mechanical beasts of the sky.

Most people know Milstein for his photographs of the underbellies of aircraft, which he captured by standing at the end of runways while commuter jets blasted overhead. These weirdly magnetic shots of Boeings, helicopters and even a blimp earned him shows a place in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, fittingly, a show at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. But recently, Milstein decided to throw his frame of reference for a switcheroo. The results are these wonderful "portraits" of the commuter hubs many of us pass through each year, although we're more likely to see a Hudson News than, say, a bunch of jets circled like herd animals or the hellish orange glow of outdoor terminal lights.

Milstein says this new series is all about "showing the patterns, layering and complexity of cities, and the circulation patterns for travel, such as waterways, roads, and airports that grow organically over time much like a living organism." As to how he actually snags these great shots, given our age of TSA paranoia, the artist says that he does get permission but would prefer to leave it at that.

He'll be showing the pieces in early April at the AIPAD Photo Show New York, but in the meantime here's a preview of what will be on display. Most of these photos depict JFK International, although for variety there's a dollop of Newark as well. If you see the photographer at the show, be sure to ask if he flew in on his own Beechcraft F33A Bonanza.


(Above: Newark Liberty International Airport)


(Above: also Newark)

Photos used with permission of Jeffrey Milstein. All photos are of JFK unless marked otherwise.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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