Nathan Kensinger is an urban explorer, filmmaker, location scout and photographer. Illegally accessing areas that normal folks don't usually see, his photos give everyone a glimpse at what's inside the restricted areas. His work has landed in the Brooklyn Museum and Library in the past, and now he has a new show about to open at Union Docs called "Abandoned Brookyn," which shows "the rapid pace of development along the waterfront has been reshaping many old industrial neighborhoods" in the borough.
Is your main focus photographing parts of New York that many don't see? Over the past five years, the main focus of my photography has been exploring and documenting the edges of New York City - the industrial neighborhoods, the waterfronts, the freight lines, the abandoned buildings. Many of the places I visit are off limits to the general public. So, yes, as a documentary filmmaker and a photographer I like to report back from places that most people don't get a chance to see.
What has been one of your more memorable photography adventures? Wow - I've got to think of a story I can tell without getting into too much trouble! All the abandoned industrial buildings I visit are adventures, with crazy discoveries and close escapes. The most memorable ones are the places where you are walking up the steps or towards a closed door, and you don't know what to expect ahead of you. It could be just another empty room, another hallway. It could be something really unpleasant. But suddenly you are out on a balcony in the turbine hall of a 15-story powerhouse, or you are standing in molasses inside the stadium-sized dome of a sugar refinery. Those places can take your breath away - you have to stand there for a minute, thinking "what did I just find?!"
Is there somewhere you haven't been able to photograph yet that you would like to? In New York, I'd like to do a series of photos of the Con Edison power plants that line the East River. They are such a formidable part of the landscape, but few people ever get to see what goes on behind the fences and walls that surround them. I'm trying to find the right person to get permission from - because you'd definitely need permission to visit them!
What will people see at your upcoming exhibit? "Abandoned Brooklyn" features new photos from abandoned places all around Brooklyn. Places that are forgotten and slowly crumbling, like Floyd Bennett Airfield. Places that have already been demolished for developers, like the Kent Avenue Powerhouse. The photos are from all over the borough - East New York, Coney Island Creek, Sunset Park.
If there is one place that you've photographed that could be saved by the LPC, what would it be? It seems like the Landmarks Commission in New York is overwhelmed right now - they were recently described in the NY Times as "a bureaucratic black hole... routinely outflanked by developers." So I am not sure what the Landmarks Commission could save. And many of the historic places I've photographed have already been demolished by developers... I'm at the point where I think that any unprotected historic industrial building along the East River waterfront should immediately be considered for landmarking - because there really isn't much left.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. There are too many strange things in New York... just this last weekend, me and two of my photographer friends were walking around an abandoned ferry terminal in the Bronx, and we came across an abandoned Richard Serra sculpture. It was just sitting there on the waterfront, behind an old shed. It was a big one, too, about 5 tons of curved steel. It was probably worth millions, but it was filled with garbage and snow. New York is like that - you turn a corner and there's something bizarre in front of you. The trick is to keep your eyes open. And bring a camera.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? I admire New Yorker's like Nellie Bly, Weegee and Jacob Riis, who documented what was considered "off-limits" in their New York era. In that vein, I recently saw a great documentary at Rooftop Films called "Captured" about Clayton Patterson, an admirably persistent photographer who has spent decades documenting changes in the East Village.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? A couple months ago, I would have said New York needed to slow down its pace of development, which was going at such an unsustainably fast pace. But it looks like the economic downturn took care of that. They're already reevaluating many of the major, controversial development projects that were pushed through over the last few years, like Manhattanville, the Atlantic Yards, the Iron Triangle. And now we're stuck with all these hastily built - or half-built - construction projects that have permanently changed the landscape the city. I think New York needs to take a closer look at what it is has lost and what it will lose because of all this rapid development.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York? I have no plans to move out of New York - I find the city endlessly fascinating. But, as a documentary filmmaker, I do travel quite a bit. And that helps me keep a healthy perspective on life in New York - it reminds me that this is not the center of the world! Last year, my documentary "Covered Tracks" traveled to film festivals in California, Utah, Iowa, Mississippi... and this year, I'm working on two new documentaries about abandoned places in Paris and San Francisco. If I had to move out of New York, though, I'd want to stay near the water. I'd go somewhere like Seattle, where they still have a working waterfront.
What's your current soundtrack? I listen to all kinds of music... right now, I'm listening to Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazelwood, Bob Wills and King Sunny Ade. And a lot of old school gangster rap.
Best cheap eat in the city. New York has so many great neighborhoods to explore for food. Jackson Heights and Sunset Park are my two favorite areas for inexpensive restaurants. In Sunset Park, I like the cemitas at Ricos Tacos and the banh mi at Ba Xuyen. Jackson Heights is great because you can get good tibetan, cuban, thai, salvadorean and korean fried chicken all within a few blocks.
Best venue to see music. I like all these underground venues that spring up in hard to reach neighborhoods. Where you're at a show in someones kitchen or unfinished basement. Silent Barn in Ridgewood is a better known example of that. My friend puts out a list of shows every week called "Sans Temps Morts" and sometimes I'll just pick the most obscure venue from his list. We saw a great show last year on the banks of the Bronx River. How often are you going to see a concert on the Bronx River?