Updated: Jul 6, 2020
In March I was in NYC for the opening of my solo show at the Condé Nast bldg in Times Square. The New York Times wanted to document my work and my night shoots for a story and so I went on one of my adventures with Corey Kilgannon and Robert Stolarik, a Times reporter and photographer. With my friend Satchel Jones I had earlier scouted a stunning scene in Brooklyn, decrepitude overlooking the East River, with the Manhattan skyline in the background. I brought the journalists to the site, where unfortunately we had to crawl through a hole in the fence to get the right angle. I had been there long enough to do a polaroid test and to see what a great image this would be, when a police car abruptly rolls in and we are scolded, threatened with arrest, then booted out. I was miserable that I would not get the shot, but amusingly, Corey was happy and told me, the story just got much better. I was determined to get the shot, but very concerned that if I tried, and the same cops caught me, I might be going for a ride to the precinct. Almost 2 months later I’m back in the city, and with the help of photographer friend Rachel Gardam, I went back through that fence and got the image.
Alley no. 138, New York, New York (2011, Brooklyn, NY, 9pm)
Shining Strobe Lights on the City’s Dark Corners
BY COREY KILGANNON APRIL 13, 2011
The tall man squeezed his large frame and his load of photography equipment through the hole in a chain-link fence on the Brooklyn waterfront, and he began framing his next film masterpiece.
It was a scene of urban decrepitude: huge, jumbled concrete slabs sloping into the churning East River and a rusted old steel stanchion sticking out of the water. The city skyline, traced in an ethereal light, provided a backdrop.
“It really has an epic feel,” said the photographer, Xavier Nuez, 46.
Some people visit New York City and photograph the typical tourist spots in gleaming Manhattan. Not Mr. Nuez, who has spent the past two decades traveling to American cities to shoot their bad sides. An art photographer, he presents urban ruins in a stylized way — a desolate alley, a neglected lot or a plundered, abandoned building interpreted almost to spoof the idea of urban ruin.
On a recent visit to New York, Mr. Nuez, who was born in Montreal and now lives in Chicago, spent his time searching Brooklyn and Queens for the perfect morsel of delicious urban bleakness.
“I go to neglected spots,” he said, “they interest me more.”
A selection of his work is currently on display in the lobby of the Condé Nast Building through April 18 in Times Square, the culmination of photographing the underbellies of dozens of cities, the grittiest of which include Detroit, Camden, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
By comparison, he said, New York City has fewer pockets of blight in recent years.
Still, on a recent Saturday night, around midnight, Mr. Nuez found himself in section of the Brooklyn waterfront, among graffiti-strewn buildings; he paced the area, taking light-meter readings, then setting his 50-year-old Hasselblad camera atop a sturdy tripod. The Hasselblad’s large negatives yield extremely high-resolution photos even when enlarged to poster size.
Since the film he uses is no longer in production, he said, “I have a 15-year supply in my freezer at home.”
Mr. Nuez only shoots at night, and since many of the settings are very dark, he leaves the camera shutter open, not for a hundredth or a tenth of a second, but sometimes up to 90 minutes for one exposure. During that time he augments the existing light by shining colored lights upon different parts of the scene, which leaves the finished photograph with a surreal color-splattered effect.
“At night I can create my own image — it really is like painting,” he explained while rifling nimbly through his camera bag in the dark, letting his fingers find his equipment. He used a flashlight to set camera settings and then looked downward into the camera-viewer and groaned. The tide had come up since he had scouted the scene earlier, and now water covered much of the wreckage that had so appealed to him.
First, he set about taking a Polaroid test picture to gauge the existing light. The shutter would stay open about 15 minutes, so if Mr. Nuez walked quickly in front of the camera, it wouldn’t appear in the final image. Even the tanker sliding slowly across the frame, downriver, wouldn’t appear. Mr. Nuez began flashing a light on the girder and other structures in the photo.
“I try not to flash the light much in places like this because suddenly everyone knows you’re here,” he said, and sure enough, a police car arrived within minutes and the officers ordered Mr. Nuez out of the location. The officers were not too interested in Mr. Nuez’s project.
“You see a hole in a fence and you go through it?” one officer asked. “We could arrest you right now for trespassing.”
Mr. Nuez packed up his equipment and loaded it into the back of his van, declaring emphatically, “I will come back and shoot this.”
Interruptions and hazards are common, he said. He has encountered street gangs, security guards, unhinged drug addicts and vagrants. He has had guns pointed at him and has been questioned by the police, and been accused of being a terrorist. Since he tends to favor abandoned or higher-crime areas, he usually tries to bring a friend along, he said, although he is often traveling alone and sleeping in his van.
After being escorted from the waterfront, he drove the van to nearby Long Island City, Queens, taking Jackson Avenue and turning onto 43rd Avenue, a dead-end street with a trash-strewn, empty lot cordoned by tall concrete walls covered with large-scale graffiti.
He dropped his bag on the dirt-lot ground and pointed his camera at some walls and a pair of double doors partly pushed in.
He took his Polaroid “test” shot and then used it as a plan for his formal photograph. He snapped open the shutter and then walked in front of the camera — in the shot — and strode purposefully around the scene, crouching and climbing and shining various colors in spots, flashing greens with a strobe flashing light. With a 20-minute exposure, his darting about will leave no impression, even as the strobes leave their marks.
Mr. Nuez said his fascination with blighted locales was sparked during childhood, while playing in alleyways and hearing his father talk about growing up homeless as a child. While in his 20’s, Mr. Nuez worked as a commercial photographer, shooting buildings for an architectural publication.
“I’d spend my days photographing the facades of these orderly, neat buildings, and at night I’d be behind the buildings walking through junk piles, looking for a different kind of shot,” he said. “I needed to balance that order with some form of chaos.”
In the Queens lot, a woman walking her dogs stopped and stared at this man who was clearly up to something in this otherwise deserted area.
“People avoid these places for good reason, so I want them to feel like they can step into the photograph,” he said, and he went back to painting his scene with colored light.
I’ve been shooting a lot lately. I did a southern tour and have great images coming up from Dallas TX, Birmingham AL, and Greenville SC
Last thing: I’ve been watching this hilarious internet comedy duo, Jake and Amir, for 3 years. Here’s their latest. If you like this, they have hundreds more.