As I've been casting about trying to get a sense of the Brooklyn character, turns out the creators of a new book from Brooklyn art publisher powerHouse Books beat me to it. Photographer Seth Kushner and writer Anthony LaSala are the brains behind The Brooklynites, a gorgeous book of photographs, interviews and essays (coming out in October) on the diverse denizens of the best borough. The accompanying photography exhibition will be up at the powerHouse Arena (an amazing combination of "gallery, boutique, book store, performance, and events space" in the DUMBO neighborhood) from September 6 to September 30. Seth and Anthony kindly agreed to a joint email interview for Brooklyn Lit Life, in which they talked about the surprises and rewards of their project and their love for the place they grew up.
Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
Anthony: I had wanted to work on a long-term project about something I love for a while. Growing up in Brooklyn and living here my whole life (with the exception of four years spent away at college), I have always wanted to explore the borough through writing and photography. I have known Seth since high school (we both went to Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway) and when I approached him with the idea, I knew we could really create something special. The design was to capture the words and faces of the people of Brooklyn within the varying neighborhoods of the borough.
Seth: Yeah, it really started with Anthony. I also had been looking for a long-term project to work on for a while, but couldn’t find anything to hold my attention for long enough. So, when Anthony mentioned Brooklyn, I thought, “That’s it.” Of course, I didn’t think it was going to go on for this long. It’s been over three years.
Anthony: We went around to some of our favorite spots in Brooklyn and began meeting people on the street. I would interview them about their experiences living and working in Brooklyn and Seth would photograph them on the spot.
Seth: We devised a system that would allow us to work fast. Anthony had a series of questions that he would ask each time, tailoring them a bit for each individual of course, which would lead them to give him a good quote about their experiences of living in Brooklyn. I would then do the shoot with only a Hasselblad, usually no tripod, and a hand-held flash on a long cord, so it would mimic a more complicated lighting set-up. Anthony always holds the flash and I tell him where to point it. Aside from being the writer on the project, he’s also the human light stand. Anyway, all this serves to help us to work quickly, with a minimum of equipment.
Anthony: Eventually we started making appointments with various people. We were trying to meet with every type of person in every neighborhood of the borough. This led to us meeting some famous people from here – Spike Lee, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, John Turturro, Fischerspooner, etc…. We also covered every major institution in Brooklyn – The Aquarium, B.A.M., Brooklyn College, The Prospect Park Zoo, The Botanic Gardens, Peter Luger’s, Greenwood Cemetery, The Brooklyn Museum, etc
Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?
Anthony: There is definitely a Brooklyn sensibilty. That is what we tried to convey with our project. It’s this unique mix of bravado, frankness and sincerity that you really don’t find anywhere else. I felt it was very important to convey the true emotions and stories of each and every subject. With some people it was easy to pull out their feelings about Brooklyn and their tales. With others it was a little tougher. But I think we did a good job of portraying each of our subjects.
Seth: We also did our best to try to cover every type of person, every nationality, every walk of life, in an attempt to show how incredibly diverse Brooklyn really is.
It’s very interesting to us to see what a particular subject is willing to reveal. Some of the most special moments came when we would approach strangers on the street and we wouldn’t know what they were going to say and then they would surprise us by basically spouting poetry. One such time we were in Bed Stuy and an older black gentleman in a suit danced up on us and said, “You know you wanna take my picture.” He was right, because I did. After the shoot, Anthony went into interview mode and asked his name, which was Billy T. Williams, and his age, to which he responded- ““I'm older than cold water and sweeter than salt.”
What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.
We did begin the project in our own neighborhood, Bay Ridge. We were very interested in capturing it’s unique character, so one of our first subjects, was Dominick, the barber. For years we always passed by this old time barber shop on Third Avenue and thought how great it would be to photograph. Not only was the shop just classic looking, with old barber chairs, bird cages and an old cash register, but the barber always struck us as a great looking Bay Ridge character. He’s an older Italian gentleman, always dressed in doctor’s scrubs and always with a charming smile. So when we conceived of the project, we thought of him immediately.
What do you think of the direction Brooklyn, or at least your neighborhood, is going? What does the future look like in terms of economics, demographics, culture, and other changes?
Anthony: It’s inevitable to not see the huge transformations going on around Brooklyn. From Red Hook to East New York to Canarsie, the whole place is shifting with new immigrants coming in and huge buildings going up in months. It’s amazing. At the same time I think we both gravitated towards a lot of the places and people that have lingered here through all the metamorphosis’ that have taken place through the years. But it’s all exciting – the changes and the things that remain. It all makes this place special.
Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?
Seth: We actually got to met and work with many of our favorite writers - Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Safran Foer Paula Fox and Paul Auster – they all appear in the book. Auster in particular was a “must-have” for us since the beginning. The only problem; he kept turning us down. He was simply too busy, he said, the first three times we contacted him.
Anthony: I even tried tracking him down at a book signing – he said no to the project, but did sign my book
Seth: With the project almost completed, we decided to take one more shot, sending him a letter where we basically pleaded with him by telling him the project “would never be complete without him.”
Anthony: He finally agreed to participate.
Seth: We were nervous entering his Park Slope brownstone on the day of the shoot, because of all the build-up. We didn’t have to be, it turned out, because Auster was gracious and charming. He said our endeavor was a “worthy project.”
Anthony: Meeting him and his wife, author Siri Hustvedt, in their overwhelming beautiful Park Slope home was a highlight for Seth and I. The photograph of him seated in his parlor reveals the architectural beauty inside one of Brooklyn’s famed brownstones as well as the intense eyes behind one of America’s most revered writers.
Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?
Anthony: Brooklyn is such an inspiration every single day. Just walking around the block can be stirring. There is always something going on to spur your imagination and your emotions. It’s the perfect place for writers.
What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
Seth: I really enjoyed the Brooklyn Book Fest at Borough Hall last year. Anthony and I went for the day and heard some great readings. I think the organizers did a very nice job of bringing Brooklyn’s literary community together and creating an event/forum for everyone, including the readers to be involved. We’re going to be doing a signing there this year and we’re very excited to be a part of it.
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