12ozProphet Exclusive Interview: Photographer and Urban Explorer Nathan Kensinger
New York City has one of the most unique urban landscapes in the world. Its alluring dynamism and continual expansion continues to captivate. Nevertheless, some of the more interesting spaces that live on from the the city’s past slowly have started to fade away in its growth. Over the past ten years, many of these spaces have been threatened with destruction due to shifts in commercial expansion and real estate development . As new luxury apartments and office buildings continue to rise and dominate the city’s skyline, some of New York’s most historic structures have fallen into the abyss of time.
However, a small number of people still frequent and explore these spaces, Nathan Kensinger is one of them. His work explores New York’s unique urban landscapes, hidden structures, and other off-limit spaces. Through remarkable photos and the lens of his camera, Nathan is able to preserve some of those fleeting moments and memories that would be lost with the destruction of these locales. Besides photography, he works within a number of different fields including film, writing, and installation art. 12ozprophet had the chance to talk to him about his work and experiences exploring some of New York’s most forgotten locales.
Where are you from originally, and how did you make your way to NYC?
I grew up in San Francisco, and first started exploring New York City in the 1990’s, while going to college on the East Coast. I fell in love with the city, and knew I wanted to move there. In 2003, I moved to Brooklyn, and have lived here ever since.
When did you first start getting into photography? What was your first experience like photographing abandoned spaces?
I started taking photos while I was in high school, but didn’t get serious about it until moving to New York. My background is in film and journalism. I studied film in college, and have worked in documentary film for years. In terms of abandoned spaces, some of the first ones I photographed in New York were in Brooklyn, particularly in Red Hook. It was amazing to see the interior of some of the old buildings there, most of which have since been torn down. I have vivid memories of visiting the neighborhood’s sugar refinery, dry dock, and grain terminal back in 2006.
Lets talk about your subject matter for a little bit, what inspires you to capture the spaces that you explore on film? What is unique about the NYC urban landscape that inspires you to document its neighborhoods and spaces? How has photography influenced the way you visualize and interact with urban spaces?
New York is an endlessly interesting subject. The more you explore the city, the deeper you go into its history and its hidden spaces. And because the city is so large, there are many areas that have been overlooked or that are not well documented. Being able to explore these places, which are in direct contrast to many peoples vision of the city, is fascinating.
I decided to use photography instead of video or film to document these neighborhoods and buildings, because it allowed me to focus on the details and to capture an impression of what it was like to be in these places, but not to worry about creating a complete portrait. With video and film, you’re dealing a lot more elements, including sound, movement, the passage of time. I chose photography because it eliminated a lot of those variables.
Using photography as my main method of documentation has definitely changed how I see the city, and how I visualize my surroundings. Usually, though, I find myself not always wanting to shoot photographs (unless a places is completely unique) because I prefer to just experience it firsthand, without the filter of a lens.
Graffiti and street art can be found in some of the places that you choose to explore, do you have any feelings or opinions about their existence in these spaces? From your perspective, what is it about these spaces that attracts such art forms to these areas?
Graffiti artists are usually among the first ones to get into the abandoned buildings in New York. Its rare that I come across a place that they haven’t visited and marked. I tend to treat graffiti as an element of the landscape and I include it in my photographs, especially when it provides a contrast to the surroundings or a message that relates to the space. I think that the best graffiti artists and street artists create works which fit in with their surroundings, and that are shaped by the landscape.
NYC is a city that undergoes dramatic changes and transformations in relatively short spans of time, does this fleeting quality of a city in flux affect your approach to photographing spaces in this city?
Definitely. New York is in a constant state of flux, and if you blink, you will always miss something. There are tons of neighborhoods and buildings I was not able to document before they were destroyed. I try to stay on top of how the city is changing, and to visit historic places that are in danger of being demolished. But its impossible to keep up with all the changes that the city is undergoing, especially in the last decade. The rate of change is enormous.
What kind of hazards do you face when you photograph the spaces that you do?
Many of the neighborhoods and buildings I photograph are on the edges of the city, and are fairly isolated. There are a lot of hazards that I try to keep an eye out for. Some of the things I’ve encountered include packs of wild dogs, highly toxic pollutants leaking out from landfills, and buildings with collapsing floors and staircases.
Was there a point when you realized that you could make a living off of photography?
Not yet! I still make my living working in film – I am the Director of Programming for the Brooklyn Film Festival, and also work as a documentary film editor.
Digital vs. film? Do you have any particular preference?
Unfortunately, film is too expensive for the way I shoot. I tend to shoot a ton of photographs, and then edit the results at home. With digital, I can shoot endlessly, without worrying about the cost. But film definitely looks better!
What kind of camera do you like to use the most?
I use a digital SLR.
Whats coming up in the future for you?
I have a large scale public art installation called The Newtown Creek Armada, which is coming up in September. I am collaborating on it with 2 other artists, Laura Chipley and Sarah Nelson Wright. We are exploring the Newtown Creek, which is one of the most polluted waterways in the USA, and will be presenting our video of the creek at a boat pond that we are creating in the creek’s water. The public will be invited to pilot our fleet of hand-crafted miniature boats, all of which will have underwater cameras attached.
Any last words or shout outs?
You can check out more of Nathan Kensinger’s work on his website, blog and flickr.
Photo: Nathan Kensinger