Pattern Recognition | Jeffrey Milstein and the ‘magic’ of the view from above

Planes, Trains and Automobiles, our exhibition of transport photographs from the national collection, closes this weekend. As part of this exhibition we acquired a stunning photograph by American photographer Jeffrey Milstein. In this blog, James Crawford, writer and presenter of the BBC One series Scotland from the Sky, takes Milstein's work as the starting point to explore the magic of viewing the world from above.

At first glance, you see a flower, shedding its petals in the wind. Another photograph shows a massive line of shelves, displaying row after row of brightly coloured book spines. Next is a close-up view of the veins of a leaf, spreading outwards in a delicate, repeating pattern.

Jeffrey Milstein, Newark Airport Terminal 11 A, © Jeffrey Milstein
Jeffrey Milstein, Container Port 43, Industry L.A. Aerials, © Jeffrey Milstein

Look again. Look closer. And very quickly you see something else.

The flower is no flower. It’s an airport terminal. Newark airport to be exact. Pictured at dusk, as a warm orange glow spills out from the circular terminal building onto the wide aprons of runway. And the petals, drifting off? They are aircraft, arriving at and leaving their stands: connecting and disconnecting from the air bridges that will carry passengers to and from the terminal.

What about the second picture, those colourful bookshelves? They are nothing of the kind. Peer in and you can see that it’s a view of a container port. All those brightly coloured books are in fact shipping containers, being sorted and stacked by huge machines.

Jeffrey Milstein, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Storage, © Jeffrey Milstein

And the veins of the leaf? A weapons storage facility for the US Navy – a complex of turf-covered, concrete bunkers linked together by now overgrown roads and railway tracks.

These images are the work of the American photographer Jeffrey Milstein – the product of his enduring passion for the view from above. At the age of fifteen, Milstein, who grew up in California, began taking flying lessons. On the day of his seventeenth birthday, he earned his pilot’s licence. He did not, however, pursue a career as a pilot. Instead, he chose to study architecture at Berkley, and later went on to start a graphic design company. You can see all of these influences coming together in his work.

Milstein takes his aerial photographs from the cockpit of light aircraft or small, agile helicopters, always flying at sunset, when the low light makes shadows longer and suffuses everything with a golden glow. Almost all of his images look straight down at the landscape – what’s known as ‘vertical’ aerial photography, a technique that requires the aircraft to bank steeply and fly round a target in tight circles, allowing the camera to point straight down. In a plane, this means opening the window and pointing the lens out. In a helicopter, it means removing the whole door prior to the flight… It’s not for the faint-hearted.

From this vantage point, Milstein brings his architect’s training, and his graphic designer’s eye, to bear on the world below. His preoccupation is with pattern and colour, transforming even the most banal sites – a car park, a freeway intersection, a housing estate – into works of abstract beauty. Often, Milstein stays in the air after the sun has dropped below the horizon, capturing cities – in particular Los Angeles and New York – as their electric lights flicker on to meet the dusk. In these images, even broader ideas and possibilities emerge. Photographs of New York’s Time Square and Broadway redraw the map of the city with pathways of bright, neon energy. It’s like you’re looking down on New York’s central nervous system, glowing with flashes of synaptic light.

Jeffrey Milstein, NYC 55 Times Square, © Jeffrey Milstein
Jeffrey Milstein, NYC 69 Times Square Broadway and 7th Ave, © Jeffrey Milstein

What Milstein clearly understands is the unique power of the view from above. For me – and I suspect, for Milstein – there is no better medium for understanding the impact of humanity on the landscape. The way we have both overcome and overwritten the natural world – yet at the same time, almost bizarrely replicated it. From the sky, Milstein turns row after row of LA backyards, trees, houses and car parks into a remarkable unfolding structure, like living cells growing under a microscope. London’s Waterloo Station at night becomes a beautiful, iridescent sea shell, or the beginnings of a DNA double helix. 

Jeffrey Milstein, LA 07 Park La Brea, © Jeffrey Milstein
Jeffrey Milstein, Waterloo Station (Night), © Jeffrey Milstein

In this sense, the view from above is compelling, seductive even – and often revelatory. Milstein is far from the first architect to be inspired by aircraft and the possibilities they offer. Over a century ago, in 1909, a young art student in Paris watched the world’s very first flight over a city – when a primitive aircraft circled the Eiffel Tower. That young man is best known today as the cultish father figure of modern architecture, Le Corbusier. From that moment on, Le Corbusier became obsessed with aircraft, saw them as the perfect symbol of a technological future. Yet, when he finally took the skies over a city himself in the 1930s, he was shocked by what he saw below: ‘immense sites encrusted with row after row of houses without hearts, furrowed with their canyons of soulless streets’. His ultimate verdict? ‘Cities with their misery must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built’.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Le Corbusier’s message was embraced across the world: not least in Scotland by a new generation of post-war planners and architects. Using vertical aerial photography taken of every inch of the Scottish landscape – 300,000 photographs produced by the RAF between 1944 and 1950 –the redesign of an entire country began. This took in everything from deciding which valleys and glens to flood for dams and hydro-schemes, and plotting courses for new, high speed motorways, to the wholesale remodelling of our largest cities. For a time, in 1947, all of central Glasgow was marked for demolition – including buildings like Central Station, the City Chambers and the Glasgow School of Art. Robert Bruce, the city’s Chief Engineer, had proposed a new central district of skyscrapers, roads and high rises, aiming, as he put it, to create ‘a healthy and beautiful’ Glasgow. This plan was ultimately shelved – but only because of the vast costs involved.

Glasgow, 1947, taken as part of 1944-50 RAF aerial survey. 20 years later, the M8 motorway would be carved right through the heart of this part of the city. © Historic Environment Scotland

This modernist movement in architecture emerged alongside new technologies like aircraft and the motorcar, and many of its ideas were informed by what were then daringly exciting, technologically advanced modes of travel. Milstein himself talks of how a favourite pastime in his youth was to wait at the end of the runway at Los Angeles airport: ‘I loved having the aircraft fly so low overhead that I could almost reach up and touch them’. Years later he took his camera back there, pointing it not straight down this time, but straight up, capturing the undersides of aircraft as they flew at some 200mph directly overhead. In his work ’49 jets’ – a composite of 49 of these ‘portraits’ – the aircraft are presented almost like a taxonomy, a beautiful range of colourful wings and fuselages, like an arrangement of butterfly species. It is, as Milstein says, a testament to ‘the magic inherent in flying’. For a large part of the twentieth century, roads and runways acted as potent – ‘magical’ even – symbols of movement and freedom. And as such, were seen as essential elements of any modern city.

Jeffrey Milstein 49 Jets 2007 © Jeffrey Milstein

Today, our sensibilities have changed once again. Now cities aspire to become ‘car free’, new airports are sited on the periphery, removing the noise and pollution from the heart of densely populated areas, to be replaced by green spaces and urban parks. If you keep looking down on our cities over the next fifty to a hundred years, we may see the retreat of the road and the car, the advance of greenery and leisure spaces – the pattern shifting.

This, of course, is what the view from above does better than anything else. It shows that our world never stops changing, not even for a second. It shows that our cities are hard-wired for change – always growing, shifting, suffering or thriving. Always regenerating and rewriting themselves. And one thing is for certain. The landscapes that Milstein – and, thanks to his photography, we – look down on today, will not be the landscapes of tomorrow.

James Crawford is the writer and presenter of the BBC One series ‘Scotland from the Sky’ and the author of the book of the same name that accompanies the series. He has previously written a number of books on aerial photography, including ‘Above Scotland’, ‘Scotland’s Landscapes’ and ‘Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above’. A second series of ‘Scotland from the Sky’ will be broadcast in Spring 2019

By James Crawford (writer and broadcaster), 9 January 2019