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.”
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.”
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.