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Photographing the Daily Roar of Life on a New York City Flight Path

In Landing Lights Park, photographer David Rothenberg captures a quiet Queens neighborhood disrupted by descending airplanes.

Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)

Near Astoria Boulevard in Queens is one of New York City’s most surreal — and noisy — parks. Called LaGuardia Landing Lights Park, its series of land parcels are both public recreation space and the fulfillment of a Federal Aviation Administration requirement to have open areas leading to the runways of LaGuardia Airport. At regular intervals, colossal jets roar above the small stretch of grass, sometimes getting within a couple hundred feet of the ground.

In a series titled Landing Lights Park, photographer David Rothenberg captured the strange sight of these airborne invaders as they fly low over this Queens neighborhood. For East Elmhurst, the disruptions of these huge machines are a part of everyday life, and Rothenberg’s images show the planes intersecting with roofs, telephone wires, and trees as they make their descents. The photographs were recently released in a book published by ROMAN NVMERALS. The monograph was supported by a 2018 Queens Art Fund New Works Grant and features text by writer Gideon Jacobs, who observes:

It’s some kind of tragic but predictable irony that those for whom flight is the greatest nuisance, for whom the sight, or more importantly, the sound of an airplane is a problem, are those who travel by airplane the least. Airports are usually housed in medium to low-income neighborhoods, and studies have shown that these neighborhoods are, on average, decibels louder than affluent ones.

Alongside photographs of the descents are closeups of passengers on these planes, staring blankly out the cabin windows or even using smartphones to take their own shots. “I first started to notice hints of detail in the airplane windows while editing pictures in Photoshop,” Rothenberg told Hyperallergic. He then experimented with a telephoto lens and faster shutter speeds to take candid portraits of these passing faces. “As a passenger looking down at the world from the air, I’ve never had the expectation of being seen, let alone photographed from the ground,” he said. “Finding a way to see these passengers in my pictures felt like I was discovering a vulnerability.”

Cover of Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy ROMAN NVMERALS)

Rothenberg, who lives in Jackson Heights, is frequently inspired by his home borough, and its unique juxtapositions that come from its diversity of architecture and culture. His 2015–17 series Covered Tracks highlights the mashups of landscape and objects in neighborhoods along the 7 train, and his 2017 book Newtown explores the rapid changes of the neighborhoods in the Newtown Township. “There are certain objects and architectural details that make regular appearances in my photographs: makeshift structures and repairs, the chrome fences ubiquitous in Queens, neoclassical and orientalist ornamentation,” he stated. “Grandiosity and neglect are often simultaneously present.”

In Landing Lights Park, those bombastic architectural touches — such as stone lions and colorful ornate fences — are interrupted by the planes. Yet despite the incredible noise, and blasts of air, these planes bring to the neighborhood, Rothenberg’s photographs have a surprising stillness. Whether in the soaring aircrafts, or the expressions of the people onboard, his compositions find quiet moments in this daily contrast between cacophonous flight and the lives below.

Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)
Photograph from Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg (courtesy the artist)

Landing Lights Park by David Rothenberg is out now from ROMAN NVMERALS.

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