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Taxi waiting area at JFK airport in New York City on a spring morning (all images by George Steinmetz, courtesy Abrams Books and Anastasia Photo)

There’s a reason why thousands of tourists wait in hours-long lines to One World Trade Center’s observation deck or to peer out from the Statue of Liberty’s crown: seeing New York City from the sky is an indescribable sight.

New York Air: The View from Above, a new book from Abrams, compiles famed aerial photographer George Steinmetz’s epic shots of the five boroughs taken from a tiny three-seat helicopter. The photographs of this self-proclaimed “air junkie,” also currently on view at Anastasia Photo, capture the overwhelming density of the metropolis, its ultimate unknowability, and its elegant, patterned geometries, only perceptible from a zoomed-out view. They reveal how we might see New York City in a future of flying cars and airways transformed Fifth Element-style.

Taken over the course of last year, in the midst of the city’s greatest period of building and redevelopment in decades, these photos press pause on one of the most frenetic cities on earth. “As I flitted about the five boroughs by helicopter, I began to understand that in a city as dynamic as this one, I could never make the definitive photographic document, because by the time it was done the city would have already changed,” Steinmetz writes in the book. “So I had to content myself with the creation of a portrait in time instead. I also discovered that even though most of New York is made of concrete, brick, and glass, it behaves like a living organism that dramatically transforms itself through the seasons.”

The Golf Club driving range at Chelsea Piers in New York City on a spring afternoon

Steinmetz shot hidden elements of life in New York that the average city dweller will never get to see: A mass burial at Hart Island, where the city buries its poor and unidentified dead; a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty’s greened copper face; sculptures by Richard Serra found in a small lot otherwise occupied by fuel tanks; a mural of Stephen Colbert’s eye covering the roof of the studio at which his show was filmed for years. And, of course, he shot the city’s people, who from the air resemble “herds of wildlife.” On the first warm day of spring, he flew over “thousands of sunbathers and picnickers looking as if they were groundhogs coming out of their urban burrows.”

Sunbathers enjoy the first warm afternoon of spring on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

To make these pictures, Steinmetz first spent hours prowling through satellite images on Google Earth to find promising targets, then plotted routes for each flight. While Google Earth is not a bad artist itself, Steinmetz’s high-resolution, 3-dimensional images, with their focus on individual ant-like New Yorkers, offer an intimacy that the software can’t. Nor can aerial drone photography compete with these helicopter views — it lacks the versatility and spontaneity of Steinmetz’s process. Flying with his pilot, Dennis (known by some air traffic controllers as Dennis the Menace, a former acrobatic flyer in air shows, and the top pilot on the US helicopter team), “I can move at eighty miles an hour, cover huge swaths of the city in one two-hour flight, and respond to whatever we find,” Steinmetz writes.

The Chrysler Bulilding on an early summer evening in New York City

The Statue of Liberty in New York City on an early summer morning

The New Yorker Hotel and view down W 34th Street towards the Empire State Building in New York City on an early evening in spring

Moviegoers enjoying Saturday Night Fever on the lawn in Bryant Park at the HBO Bryant Park Summer  Film Festival

New York Air: The View from Above is available from Abrams Books. The photographs are on view at Anastasia Photo (143 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 28. 

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.