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Work / Photography

David Rothenberg discusses his unique portraits of the passengers of planes

Although born and raised in southern California, photographer David Rothenberg has called New York City home for the last 18 years. More specifically, Jackson Heights, Queens, and it’s an area which has become the focus of many of his projects. The most recent of these titled Landing Lights Park saw David photographing those who live under the flight paths of LaGuardia airport as both a documentation of this experience, but also an exploration into the formal qualities of composition.

“I became interested in photographing the homes and sites that were closest to this intrusion,” he explains of the beginnings of the project. “For the past several years I had been photographing in different neighbourhoods throughout the borough and this project became a continuation of that practice.”

Fairly early on in the project David noticed that he could “make disorienting and layered compositions by playing visually with the low-flying planes in the background as they seemingly collided with neighbourhood details in the foreground.” This discovery went on to form the basis of the project, which sees images of planes collaged against an urban skyline, interspersed with some of the most unique portraiture we’ve ever seen.

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

These portraits that the form of the long-distant images of people as they stare out the window of various aircraft. “While editing my images, I began to notice traces of detail in the windows and subsequently became fixated on trying to get clear images of passengers’ faces,” David tells us. “My project soon shifted emphasis toward capturing these faces: subjects who had no expectation of being seen, let alone being photographed.”

So how do you actually take such a clear portrait of someone who is not only fair above your head, but moving incredibly quickly we asked? David explained: “The passenger pictures were made with a long telephoto lens while using an extremely fast shutter speed. I’d rapidly shoot several frames of the descending plane as it passed over the last stretch of the neighbourhood of East Elmhurst before reaching the airport.”

The fascinating element of this process is that David himself can’t see the faces when he’s shooting, even when looking through the viewfinder. In turn, much of the project is left to chance. “The fun begins when I later sift through hundreds of pictures searching for these hidden faces, which always yields surprising results,” he concludes, “the novelty never gets old.”

Landing Lights Park is now available as a book, published by Roman Nvmerals, supported in part by a 2018 Queens Art Fund New Works Grant and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Greater New York Arts Development Fund.

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park

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David Rothenberg: Landing Lights Park