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Airplanes, Suspended in Time, at the Air and Space Museum

In his photographs, now on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Jeffrey Milstein bares the bellies of airplanes

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Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 D. Photo by Jeffrey Milstein. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.

As a kid growing up in California, Jeffrey Milstein loved to go to the Los Angeles International Airport to watch the planes come in. He quickly became obsessed with aircraft, building model airplanes and sweeping out hangars in exchange for flying lessons from a former Navy pilot. As a teenager, he earned his wings—a private pilot’s license.

Flying is a hobby for Milstein, not a profession, however. He studied art and architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and had a successful career as an architect and graphic designer. In the last decade, though, Milstein has concentrated his efforts on photography and, in doing so, has been able to work his love for aviation back into the fold.

“Returning to the airport approaches, this time behind a camera instead of a control column, he photographed aircraft at the precise moment when they passed overhead, inbound to land,” writes Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in the foreword to Milstein’s 2007 book AirCraft: The Jet as Art.

Now, borrowing the same name as Milstein’s book, a new exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum through November 25, 2012, features 33 of Milstein’s formal portraits of the underbellies of airplanes. The images measure up to 50 by 50 inches.

“Milstein’s photographs of frozen moments evoke speed, technology and the excitement of flight,” said Carolyn Russo, curator of the exhibition, in a press release. “The enormity of the images seem to pull you into the air, as though you are going along for the ride.”

Capturing a plane traveling at up to 175 miles per hour at just the right moment and angle is no easy task. ”It’s like shooting a moving duck,” Milstein told msnbc.com. “The planes are moving so fast, and I have only a hundredth of a second to get my shot. I have to keep the camera moving with the plane and then fire the shot exactly at the top dead center. It took a lot of practice.” The photographer’s favorite place to shoot from is runway 24R at LAX. ”You have to find the right spot underneath the flight path. Not too far away and not too close. The plane can’t be coming in too high or too low, and if the wing dips a little bit to correct for wind, the symmetry will be unequal. It is just a matter of finding the ‘sweet spot’ so that the aircraft is lined up exactly in the camera’s frame,” he told Russo.

Then, in Photoshop, Milstein strips away the backgrounds of his photographs, replacing them with stark white backdrops as to not detract from the seams and detailing on the planes undersides. He blows them up in size and creates bold, photographic archival-pigment prints to sell and display in galleries.

“My first career was architecture, and if you think about it the way I am presenting the aircraft is really like architectural drawings,” said Milstein in a 2007 interview. Some describe the photographs as “clinical.” Russo has compared them to a collection of pinned butterflies. But, as Boyne puts it, Milstein allows the planes “to stand alone in all their stark, efficient, minimalist beauty.” Keyword: beauty. The way that Milstein presents the airplanes, they are eye candy for both aviation fanatics and art aficionados. His photographs cast airplanes as both marvels of engineering and masterpieces of art.

* For more of Milstein’s photographs, see Air & Space magazine’s story, “The Jet as Art.”

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