Anthony Hamboussi just put out a book of pictures of Newtown Creek, the industrial waterway between Brooklyn and Queens. We asked him a few questions about the creek, his experience getting arrested while photographing there, and about his approach to picture-taking.
Most of our readers know that Newtown Creek is the polluted tributary of the East River that separates Brooklyn from Queens. What else can you tell us about it? Yes, of course it is extremely polluted and the book definitely shows this. Yet the book deals with a myriad of other topics. What we see in the “Newtown Creek” is a microcosm of what happens to the land use in cities during their transformation from a major hub of industrial activity to a secondary but necessary series of spaces, which function and serve the city hidden from our view. One of the effects of this transformation is what the industry left behind, pollution, but it also left a rich and intriguing history for us to unravel, understand and learn from.
What drew you to spend five years photographing in and around the Creek? When I began the project I did not place a time frame on how long the work would take to produce. In 2002 I sent a proposal to the New York State Council on the Arts for funding. I proposed to systematically document the built environment that surrounds the Creek during a time of rapid real estate development in NYC. I realized that the urban fabric of the city would change dramatically with gentrification getting closer to this area. At that time I called the project the Newtown Creek Archive Project. The State awarded me the funds, which helped me continue photographing along with researching. I found the history of this industrial district to be quite intriguing and became obsessed with its discovery. More importantly, I was fascinated by it’s current use and the politics and negotiation of space. All these factors are what kept me there until I felt the Archive was thorough. The complete visual archive contains hundreds of images not printed in the book but represents a definitive visual study of the landscape during this time.
One of the issues we're most interested in here at Gothamist is the gentrification of previously industrial spaces in the city, especially the waterfront areas. How has Newtown Creek changed since you began working there? The photographs in the book are arranged chronologically and they are a witness to the changes that I experienced along the Creek. One of the major changes was the water front park built as part of the percent-for-art element of the Water Pollution Control Plant upgrade in Greenpoint (you can see the park under construction on the book’s cover). Before the park opened there had been no programmed public access points along the Newtown Creek. Around 2003-4 NY began a bid for the 2012 Olympics and the western tip of Hunters Point was a proposed site for the Olympic Village. They had famous architects making proposals through competitions. During that time the area was completely transformed and all the old industrial buildings were knocked down and empty lots were now ready for development. Whether NY won the bid or not (which it didn’t) the area was now ready for development and real estate investment. And since then, it has been growing rapidly along the western waterfront. Yet the further you go east along the creek the slower things change, but it’s all changed nonetheless.
There's been a lot of news recently about the superfunding of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, but Newtown Creek is arguably larger and even more polluted. Do you think it'll ever get cleaned up? I’m not sure. But for me it has never been about whether the creek is cleaned up or not but about understanding the conditions on which to move forward. I felt most of the vernacular architecture that existed along the creek had the possibility of reuse and has value as a point of reference for history.
During this project you faced constant hassling from the police for shooting industrial buildings around Creek, lost your press credentials, and even got arrested while shooting outside The Keyspan Energy Facility. You're of Egyptian extraction- do you think that had anything to do with it? Of course. Most people were afraid of another attack of terrorism. On the one hand there was a lot of ignorance. The fact that photography had become “illegal” to a certain degree made it all the more necessary for me to continue photographing in public space which I deemed as my right. The act of photographing I felt took on the element of being a political act. The suspicions I encountered from police, security and those who worked and lived along the creek was an impetus' for me to continue my project. I had been doing the sort of opposite of what most of these people were assuming. My intent had more to do with the love I had for the place as well as its preservation. I was born in Bushwick and had an intimate knowledge of the surrounding areas. But of course I was racially profiled and with the climate of paranoia people didn’t want to try and understand my intention but everyone wanted to be a hero.
Tell us a little bit about your process- you filmed many of these shots from a platform you constructed on top of your van. Why? The platform came about as I began photographing and realized that there was no visual or physical access to the waterway. Only a few businesses that lined the creek use the waterway, to ship waste or to deliver petroleum, otherwise it is used as a continuing dumping ground. The only way to see the waterway is to raise your self above the fencing and walls built for keeping you at a distance from the creek. The height also helps when rendering the proper proportions and perspective of most structures as well as adding a foreground element in my compositions to illustrate the inaccessibility to the waterfront. To physically gain access to the waterway I had to trespass on to to abandoned sites or sites under construction, which were plentiful. I wanted the work to have a sense of how closed off the space is to the general public. That was my main reason for not approaching any of the businesses for permission to gain access through their properties. It felt like a small suburban community where if you were not part of the area you would immediately be spotted. Then I was usually asked what I was doing there and why.
And what kind of camera did you use? I work with a large format Camera on a tripod. This camera uses a 4”x5” sheet of film. I work with this camera because it can render a scene with exceptional detail and has the ability to both change the plane of focus and adjust the perspective. There are also a series of images in the book that were made from a boat. In that case I used a 6x7 cm medium format film camera hand held.
What time of day did you do most of your work? My main concern was with the quality of light as well as the activity going on around the area. I avoided photographing during the peak business hours. I usually found myself there during weekends, holidays and off-hours (usually after 4pm on weekdays when most work ceased for the day). These were the least active moments that eliminated most human presence from the images. I wanted to create a type of image that would engage the viewer. Both the quality of light and the inactivity of the space give the viewer a chance to see the space in a more introspective way (the place itself and not the drama unfolding in the space). The deceptive banality of the spaces forces the viewer to look more closely at the image and hopefully ask themselves what they are looking at.
What are some of your other favorite areas of New York to shoot in? I’ve photographed mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. Last summer I worked with a non-profit organization called the Center for Urban Pedagogy. Our collaboration produced a wonderful book called “What is Affordable Housing?” NYC Edition. This project took me to all five boroughs and was a pleasant surprise for me. I began rediscovering the city’s beauty at its furthest reaches.
What are you working on next? Currently I’m working on a book about similar urban phenomena in Paris and in the past year I’ve begun to work in the city of Cairo.