Looking at things from the air is nothing new for Jeffrey Milstein.
He took his first aerial photographs from a Cessna 150 in 1961 when he was 17, shortly after he got his pilot’s license by sweeping a Southern California aircraft hangar in exchange for flight time.
He went on to become an architect, then started a design/publishing company before landing on his current photography career.
What was new for Milstein was convincing the city of Paris to let him hang out of a helicopter photographing its iconic monuments and wide boulevards. Flights directly over the city are highly restricted and very rarely granted.
That was no easy feat, but the helicopter company he flew with facilitated a three-month application process and art world friends helped Milstein argue that the project would be in the public interest.
“They ended up giving me two 45-minute flights over the city, so we had to work really fast, but I had a good pilot and we got it done,” said Milstein, who lives in Woodstock, New York.
The result is “Paris: From the Air,” a book of 200 mesmerizing color photographs showcasing the City of Light from angles rarely seen.
Milstein’s straight-down shots, a style he’s known for, are informed by his background as an architect and graphic designer.
“I’ve come to really like this very formal, symmetrical look with a strong center of interest and careful cropping. It’s really kind of an artistic thing, and it’s also kind of like a plan view that an architect might see.”
What sets Paris apart
A straight-down image of I.M. Pei’s shimmering 1989 Pyramide du Louvre, flanked by 19th-century wings of the famed museum, is just such a plan view and an elegant abstraction bathed in golden light.
The long shadows of tiny ant-like people seem to drip straight down the page – among the few chance elements within the soothing symmetrical order of things.
Such detail shots are interspersed with wider straight-down views of monuments and the neatly organized arrondissements of Paris, plus some more traditional angled aerial views of the city.
Milstein has photographed other cities in his straight-down style – a 2017 book features Los Angeles and New York, and he has also spent time shooting overhead in London and Amsterdam.
But what’s especially unique about Paris is its uniform building height and aestheic, due largely to Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s 19th-century urban plan that razed most of the city’s medieval structures, carving out wide boulevards lined with limestone apartment buildings with zinc roofs.
“Paris has this wonderful homogeneity kind of with these beautiful avenues and the light comes in everywhere because there’s no tall buildings blocking light. And it’s a very human scale,” Milstein said.
He captured most of central Paris’ famed landmarks, with one notable exception: part of his agreement with the city prohibited shooting Notre Dame Cathedral, which was still covered in scaffolding after 2019’s devastating fire.
Shooting straight down
Milstein shot over Paris while leaning out of a Squirrel AS 355N helicopter with the door off using high-resolution medium-format cameras.
“To achieve the straight-down shot, the pilot has to make steep, tight circles while I lean out as far as I can, hand holding the camera,” Milstein explains in the book.
In addition to the two flights directly over Paris’ historic center, Milstein took separate flights over the La Défense business district, Charles de Gaulle airport (he can’t resist airports and planes) and nearby Versailles, where he also received special permission to fly over Louis XIV’s sprawling palace.
Straight-down shots of the palace’s intricate formal gardens make for a series of lush, symmetrical green and stone abstractions.
Milstein and his pilot, Félix Claro, had a significant language gap, but careful planning and “a lot of hand gesturing,” made it work, he said in the book.
“We had to work fast, as time and the best light were limited,” he wrote. “I get into a kind of zone once I start shooting; everything else falls away and I just move into that moment.”
Viewers may well get into a similar zone poring over his photographs of the orderly streets, monumental squares and hidden courtyards of Paris.
“Paris: From the Air” by Jeffrey Milstein © Rizzoli New York, 2021. $25