Have Camera, Will Trespass, on Brooklyn’s Waterfront
Nathan Kensinger generally does not ask for permission when he photographs the decaying remnants of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront. Since 2003, he has wandered into shuttered factories, padlocked basements and forbidding warehouses. He often goes along with other photographers who have an adventurous bent. He hasn’t been arrested, yet, but he doesn’t want to tempt fate, either.
Mr. Kensinger’s photographs are now on view in a small exhibition, “Twilight on the Waterfront: Brooklyn’s Vanishing Industrial Heritage,” that opened on June 17 and runs through Aug. 30 at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
His subjects range from the Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg, part of which was declared a landmark in 2007; the ruins of the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, which were ravaged by arson in 2006; and the haunting remains of Dead Horse Bay, where a 17th-century Dutch mill once stood.
Mr. Kensinger, 29, grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco, within view of the Navy Yard, and now lives near the Gowanus Canal; water has long been a source of fascination. He studied documentary filmmaking at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 2001, and then worked on a still-unfinished documentary for two years, before moving to Brooklyn.
In recent years, Mr. Kensinger said in a phone interview, he has spent more time photographing, though he still focuses on documentary filmmaking and cinematography. He also works as a location scout for “Law & Order: SVU,” a job that came about, he said, because of his knowledge of the city’s more arcane locations.
He usually takes nothing more than a single digital camera — he uses a Nikon D80 — with just one lens. He explained:
I really have to keep the equipment pretty light because most of these spaces are off-limits. To gain access to them, I can’t really carry a lot of heavy equipment. I might be climbing a fence or climbing a wall, which makes it difficult to carry a lot of stuff with me. It’s very difficult to gain access to those sites. A lot of them I gained access to as they were being demolished. They don’t want people taking photographs — not only for safety reasons, but also maybe because they don’t want to encourage preservationists.
Some hazards were involved. “I really don’t like the guard dogs,” Mr. Kensinger said. “There’s definitely a degree of danger to the whole enterprise, but I think the rewards of seeing these spaces that no one else is able to see is worth my while. There’s certainly danger with buildings decaying, floors collapsing, stepping on nails. I stepped on a 10-inch nail one time. It was not so fun.” (Without revealing too many specifics, Mr. Kensinger said he carefully prepares before each shoot, scouting out security procedures and determining the best ways to get access.)
Mr. Kensinger is part of a movement of adventure urban explorer, who wander — and document — the city’s forbidden places. As “Children of Darkness,” a 2007 article in The Times, explained, these explorers include artists like Miru Kim, who takes photographs of herself, naked, posed in abandoned tunnels and structures throughout the city and elsewhere.
Such photographs seem to have found an audience. Mr. Kensinger’s work is featured in “Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition” at the Brooklyn Museum, and through his Web site, he has found like-minded photographers and explorers. “Every week, I get e-mail from people who have tips or want to come out and shoot with me.”
Although the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Brooklyn industrial waterfront one of America’s 11 most endangered places in 2007, Mr. Kensinger said he did not expect most of the structures he has photographed to be saved.
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission we have right now is working as hard as it can to save some of these structures, but I feel like the opposition is coming from developers and really also from the city government, which is very pro-development,” he said.
City Room, By Sewell Chan