Photo Essays

From a Helicopter, a Photographer Finds Novel Angles on NYC

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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.”

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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.”

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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 design is fabricated from chrome-nickle steel and symbolizes the twentieth century. The Chrysler Building had sheet-metal shops on the 65th and 67th floors and the design motif is points radiating out from a rounded base, a sunburst to greet the world. William Van Alen’s seventy-seven story Chrysler Building was the world’s tallest for only eleven months, until the Empire State Building surpassed it in 1931, but no skyscraper has ever surpassed its harmonious design, the grace with which its crown emerges from its shaft, the seamless transition from brick to steel. The Chrysler Building owes its existence to Walter P. Chrysler, who backed Van Alen’s dazzling plan with his own cash after the original developer got cold feet. An industry study in 1929, just before the Crash, argued that construction costs rendered Midtown buildings above sixty-three stories unprofitable ventures, and the top seven floors of the Chrysler Building are barely rentable thanks to that gorgeous crown. Chrysler was paying for immortality, but he made Van Alen sue for his fee.
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 statue and its pedestal rest on a marvelous base adapted from an early nineteenth-century fort on the site, which was built in the form of an eleven-point star. Star-shaped forts dated back to fifteenth-century Italy: The design permitted defenders to fire down on the backs of attackers seeking to scale their walls. Like other sturdy buildings in New York Harbor, the fort served briefly as an immigrant examining station before being converted to its current, noble use.
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. The New Yorker Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street was the largest in New York when it opened in 1930. In the days when the well-heeled traveler from Chicago and the West debarked from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited express train at Pennsylvania Station across the street, the Art Deco hotel sat on top of the world. The rise of air travel, the demolition of the station, and the decline of the neighborhood all led to one conclusion, and in 1972 it closed its doors. But in New York, everything comes around again: It is, after many vicissitudes, once again an up-and-coming hotel, and while it may not be New York’s chicest, it can claim the best sign.
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 are probably not reflecting on the long history of this plot, behind the New York Public Library on West 42nd Street. In the 1820s and 1830s, it was the city’s potter’s field, which was moved to Randalls Island in 1840 and then to Hart Island. It became a park in 1847, and hosted the city’s first world’s fair six years later. In more recent times, it was a troubled, and at times dangerous, place that was rescued in 1992 by a thoughtful and innovative plan that has led to its renaissance as a popular gathering place.
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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