John Bartelstone is an architectural photographer based in New York. For the past fifteen years, he's been documenting the gritty buildings in the massive Brooklyn Navy Yard. PowerHouse books has just released a beautiful book of black and white photographs from the project. We asked him a few questions about his work:
You've had an interesting career, first as an architect with the Port Authority, and for the last ten years as an architectural photographer— you must have seen some pretty interesting places here in New York. What are some of your favorites? Actually, I started out as a recording engineer in the late 70’s - early 80’s. Back then the city was filled with recording studios, each with a distinctive sound and atmosphere. Little sound grottos everywhere.
I’m not sure that architectural photography has exposed me to more of New York’s wonders than I would have found by just exploring. Wait, I take that back. I’ve walked to New Jersey in two tunnels, the Holland and The PATH tubes to Jersey City (don’t try either one without permission.) And I’ve flown over the city in a helicopter more times than I could have imagined.
It’s tough to rank these things but The Navy Yard is still at the top of my list of most wonderful places in New York. It would be followed by the Todd Shipyard that was totally destroyed by Ikea a few years ago. Then I’d have to put the old Phelps-Dodge copper plant on New Town Creek as another of my favorite sites in the city. It’s been gone for about ten years and it was definitely worth being arrested to get some shots of it. Then there was the network of magnificent power substations that Chris Payne documented in his book. There was so much to see on almost every block in the city. Some of it is still there but you have to look hard.
It was a wonderland for a kid. Nowhere in today’s NY can an eight year-old boy see a giant brewery with its great copper vats and chimneys or the gas holders, or trains at the Hudson piers. The remaining wonders of New York are mostly underground: places like the valve chamber of Water Tunnel 3 or the underbelly of Grand Central. I should mention that some sublime places are being built today. The new, New Croton Aqueduct filtration plant in the Bronx will be a marvel, as is the Newtown Creek water treatment plant in Greenpoint.
You've just published a book on The Brooklyn Navy Yard. What drew you there? What makes the Navy Yard special? The Yard was always in the back of my mind since I first saw it from a tugboat in 1967. Later, with a friend, I was driven through the yard at twilight and further captivated. But I wasted ten years before I got back in there to start this project.
In the early 90’s I was wandering around Brooklyn looking for industrial subjects to shoot. I’m not very interested in shooting people and street scenes. I’d rather concentrate on what I love to dream about; industrial spaces. I look for places that match my dreams. That’s what brought me to the Yard. That and the fact that I did not have a driver’s license and the Yard was an F Train away.
What are some of your favorite places in the Navy Yard? The dry docks (I think I’m partial to No. 4.) Building 128, and Building 294. Buildings 1 and 77, and Officers’ Row. Well, you can tell by the number of pages that each gets in the book.
Who works in the Navy Yard today? What goes on in there? Contrary to the impression that one might get by taking my pictures seriously, the place is humming. The dry docks get plenty of business with huge ships coming in all the time. There are many medium and small businesses there too. Sweet’n Low has its biggest building there and Capsys makes modular housing units there too. Did I shoot Steiner Studios, the biggest movie lot on the east coast? No, it’s too modern and breaks the trance. But it’s a big part of today’s Yard.
There are about 5,000 people working in the BNY every day but I guess I made it look like a ghost town (sorry, I couldn’t help it).
The Navy Yard is one of the last untouched pieces of the old industrial waterfront. How much longer do you think it will survive? What do we lose when these kinds of industrial areas are converted into parkland and residential developments? I hope that no more industrial land in New York is ever converted to other uses. There are plenty of places where one might build a Condo but there’s only one place to berth a ship: the waterfront. This city must still see itself as married to the sea if it is to prosper. There used to be one million manufacturing jobs in New York, now there are perhaps 150,000. We used to be an exporter of goods but with a further loss of industrial land, even local businesses will have to move out of town.
We all know that post-industrial was a deception, a real estate ploy to empty out valuable land for “higher uses”. The fact is, and I think that everyone sees it now, that we need a balanced economy and that includes manufacturing. The Navy Yard is an exception to current trends because it is essentially an industrial preserve, a place where endangered businesses can find grazing land. It has a charter (I think) and will not give itself over to residential interests. That said, the new supermarket that they are planning on Flushing, while needed, seems to be a bit of a stretch from their business model. I think that this corner of Brooklyn will keep its character while other waterfront districts succumb to re-zoning and developers. I hope that a future mayor will try to roll back mixed-use zoning and because of the recession, there may be time to undo what Bloomberg has done to the manufacturing sector.
The Navy Yard has always strongly restricted community access- it opens only once or twice a year. Was it hard to get access for this project? What's the best way for a visitor to tour the yard? The Yard will soon be opening a visitor’s center that will make access much easier than it was in the past. In 1994 I got in by asking. In exchange for access, I promised to give the Yard copies of all of the images. Perhaps they also knew that I did not have an agenda and just wanted to capture the spirit of the place.
These pictures have so much detail- what kind of camera did you use to shoot them? Why'd you choose to go with black and white? What's the best advice you can give us for taking a good architectural photograph? I used several formats ranging from 2-1/4 “ roll film to 8 x 10 “ sheet film. Most of the shots were made with a 4 x 5 “ view camera and all of the shots (with the exception of two) were shot with Kodak T-max black and white negative film. Nothing was digital. Black and white was attractive for several reasons. I could develop the film myself. But of more importance, I could take the Yard out of time. I did not have to worry about blue plastic tarps and day-glow warning signs. The Yard that I shot could be shown as layered in time but it could still pivot about the 1940’s. I’m not sure that I could have attempted that with color film.
To take good architectural pictures (or any pictures) you should tell a story. Each picture should be able to exist on its own but also relate to those before and after it. More specifically, you have to spend a lot of time with the subject and the light that falls on it.
You worked on this Navy Yard project for 15 years. What's your next project? A short one.