Sky Shooter: Photographer’s Birds-eye Views Reveal Hidden Patterns in Cityscapes

Jeffrey Milstein grew up imagining what it would be like to fly—as a child he would take photographs of airplanes soaring overhead and fantasize about what it would be like to always be thousands of feet in the air, peering down on life below.

Now, at age 70, the UC Berkeley-trained architect-turned-photographer is making quite a name for himself doing just that. His newest works are a series of birds-eye views that capture the surprising geometric artistry and grid-like patterns in cityscapes and human-designed constructions such as housing developments, airports, cruise ships and ports.

His modus operandi: shooting from a helicopter that has a sturdy seat belt but no side door.

“When I am shooting, I am so into it I don’t think about risks or anything like that. I find it really exhilarating,” says Milstein. “I am usually one to four thousand feet (high). Lower in the helicopters. Higher in the airplanes.”

He isn’t able to lean very far out of the helicopter before the wind makes it too difficult to stabilize the camera, so instead, he has the pilot tip the helicopter in order to get the perfect shot. His camera is also mounted onto a gyroscope for extra stabilization. Night shoots are particularly tricky, because even the tiniest movement can ruin the picture. His combination of lenses and equipment capture extremely high-resolution images that can be blown up in print, revealing an impressive amount of detail.

“I think I like being able to see so much of what is going on and to be able to move through space in any direction.”

His photography has appeared at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum and countless galleries and airports, as well as magazines including this month’s Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler.

Milstein got his pilot’s license when he was 17 in Santa Monica, CA and went on to complete a bachelor’s in architecture from Berkeley in 1968. Architecture has undoubtedly influenced his approach to photography. He acknowledges that when shooting, he is always looking for symmetrical patterns and perpendicular lines, and he tries to find ways to make a photo resemble a drawing or an architect’s blueprint.

One of his favorite aerial photos, for example, depicts a Los Angeles housing development in LA called Park La Brea. He likes the fact that it “looks like a mandala.”

The New York-based photographer says he doesn’t know where his next shooting location will be. Although he would like to photograph foreign cities, he notes that “renting a helicopter can be pretty expensive” and that a prime location for a future shoot might be the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has friends and connections from his days at Cal.

His newest work on cityscapes and cruise ships will be shown at the Benrubi Gallery in New York from July 9 to August 22. You can view more of Milstein’s portfolio on his website.

All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Milstein.

— Marica Petrey
Filed under: Arts + Letters
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