Photographer Jeffrey Milstein has been fascinated with aviation and flying since he was a young boy building toy models. At 15 he would sweep hangar floors at the Santa Monica Airport on Sunday mornings in exchange for flying lessons. He passed his pilot's exam at 17.
He remembers his father taking him to the end of the runway at Los Angeles International Airport to watch the planes land. "In those days it was DC3s and DC6s. There were no jets yet," said Milstein from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "I loved standing right under them as they flew over my head."
Years later after a successful career as an architect and graphic designer, Milstein decided to try his hand at fine art photography. Recalling those thrilling yet fleeting moments, he began photographing planes in flight.
"Aircraft: the Jet as Art" is a collection of 17 large-scale photographs on view at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Virginia beginning May 1. A larger full-scale show of his photos was exhibited last year at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The majority of the images, except for the military aircraft, were taken at LAX over the last dozen years.
His pictures evoke memories of wonder and awe from a common ritual shared by many aerial aficionados: sitting near the end of a runway, watching in anticipation for planes to land.
Photographing the planes from underneath as they approach at 180 mph, Milstein is able to freeze that moment. "You can look at the plane from a position you don't normally see because I'm using a very high-resolution camera," said Milstein. His work combines the feat of engineering and science with art, making it possible to focus on the plane's beauty and intricate details, such as rivets, colors and design elements.
Milstein digitally removes or neutralizes the background. By isolating the plane he transforms it into an object of typology in the style of Bernd and Hilla Becher's industrial photos.
One of his favorite spots to take his photos is a section of Westchester Parkway about a quarter mile from where the planes touch down on the north runway. Unless it's a perfectly calm day pilots must constantly correct for side winds on approach for landing.
"I'm running back and forth trying to figure out where the plane is going to be when it's right over me," explains the 68-year-old Milstein, comparing the process to a baseball batter trying to figure out what the pitcher is going to throw. In a bit of acrobatic choreography, he bends his head back as far as he can while holding the camera, keeping the plane centered in the viewfinder.
Milstein's work has been shown in dozens of museums and galleries in the U.S. and internationally including the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. A book of his photos "Aircraft: The Jet as Art" (Abrams) is in its second printing.