George Plimpton once wrote, “From above, the city looks empty: so little moves that is discernible. All the descriptive adjectives about New York -- ‘teeming,’ ‘bustling,’ ‘cacophonous,’ and so forth -- are pertinent only at the street level. From above they simply do not apply.” And that's why photos of New York from the air are so captivating.
Rob Marshall is a vice president and pilot for New York On Air, a company specializing in aerial photography and cinematography. He has been flying helicopters for three decades -- and you can tell. There’s no shake when Marshall lifts the helicopter from the company's helipad in New Jersey. From there, the helicopter speeds across the Meadowlands and Liberty Park, the Manhattan skyline rushing into focus.
“Okay, let’s open those doors!” Marshall yells to two photographers in the back, as the helicopter hovers 20 or so yards above the Hudson River. Marshall then lifts the helicopter high above the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges on the East River. The photographers, attached to harnesses, lean out of the sides of the helicopter and begin to shoot.
Marshall knows all the good places. He circles the top of the Empire State Building.
And the top of 432 Park Avenue -- now New York’s tallest residential building.
He flies directly over the silver crown of the Chrysler Building.
At one point, one of the photographers, William Anderson, lets his feet dangle from the chopper.
North and south, the city stretches on for miles, and the only real discernible movements are the rivers of yellow cabs cutting through the steep canyons of Midtown.
And at times, the city appears so intricately designed, made up of so many harsh right angles, that it looks almost like a microchip.
Flying with New York on Air is an experience that’s both exhilarating and peaceful -- and one that, thanks to Instagram, more and more viewers and photographers are getting to have.
At the beginning of this year, New York On Air had about 400 Instagram followers. Now, it has over 280,000. The company is taking advantage of its popular Instagram feed in a number of ways. It has started offering “instaflights,” in which photographers, both amateur and experienced, pay to go up in the helicopter and take photos of the city. The flights, also known as “photo experience flights,” cost $300 - $500 each. They offer a unique opportunity to photographers, as well as great publicity for New York On Air when participants post photos from their rides on Instagram and other photo-sharing sites.
But the flights can also end up being a kind of “paid audition,” said Vin Farrell, a New York On Air board member and photo contributor, as well as global chief content officer at the ad agency Havas. If your photos are good enough, New York On Air might just ask you to be a contributor.
While no contributors have been recruited directly through "instaflights" yet, the company has used the photo-sharing service to vet photographers. In the past year, over 20 Instagram photographers have been selected as New York On Air contributors.
“We basically share copyright with those contributors,” explained Farrell. If contributors end up selling any of their photos or videos, he said, the company gets part of the profits. The company also licenses out its aerial photos and videos for movies, TV shows, commercials and more. (Clients have included ESPN, Time, Fox Sports, Edelman, and the Governor’s Ball Music Festival.)
Farrell says Instagram has been a wonderful tool to help grow the company, but more importantly, to share the thrill of riding in a helicopter above Manhattan.
“It's fucking sick,” he said. “It's legitimately a thrill of a lifetime. It satisfies the thrill-seeking mentality. You have the opportunity to see the world through a perspective that few people get to see.”
“There’s an artistic component,” Farrell added. “The challenge to get an angle no one else has done yet.”
The company has even used Instagram to hire new employees. Three of New York On Air’s employees -- an operations manager, a sales representative, and a marketing assistant -- were all hired after responding to job listings posted on the photo-sharing site.
Additionally, some prominent professional photographers and artists have discovered the company through Instagram. Artist Daniel Ashram, National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin, and former New York Times photojournalist Vincent LaForet have all signed agreements with New York On Air.
Here are aerial photos taken from New York On Air flights by LaForet, Chin and others: