Chilean-born photographer Sergio Purtell moved to New York City back in the ’80s but for the past eight years, the changing landscape of Brooklyn struck him as a development worth documenting. The result is over 1,400 black-and-white images, all of which are on view (in either large format print or slideshow form) at Art 3 in Bushwick.
Andre von Morisse, a painter represented by the gallery, was on hand when we stopped by. He pointed to four of the images hanging side-by-side on a bleach white wall. “Those four were taken just at the end of the street here on Ingraham.” These photographs show a strangely bucolic Bushwick — wildflowers, trash bits amongst gnarled plants.
Purtell focused his efforts on this neighborhood as well as Gowanus and Williamsburg, all parts of Brooklyn that have experienced rapid development, gentrification, and transformation over the past decade. Many of the images depict buildings and structures that no longer exist — from the more obvious places like the Domino Sugar factory to less recognizable places like Economy Stainless Steel Supply, an industrial business once located on Cook Street in Brooklyn that has since moved to Valley Stream, New York.
Most of Purtell’s photographs in this series are devoid of people. A sense of abandonment, loneliness, and neglect permeate the work. These landscapes are more urban desert than rapidly changing cityscape. Besides a few notable exceptions, this is not gentrification in the obvious sense — at least among the images we checked out in the gallery, none depicted a Starbucks, for example. Rather, Purtell focuses on the in-between, the calm before the storm of neighborhood upheaval, when things are drying up. Instead of showing the replacements, he’s showing what’s on the chopping block after it’s already been slaughtered, but still waiting to be butchered.
At this point, heavy and light industrial businesses are boarded up, the streets are trash-ridden, and outdated remnants of a bygone era remain (a swimming ladder that dips into the Gowanus Canal, for real?), but we get the feeling not for very long.
As we said, there are some exceptions: one photo depicts a group of three white friends either moving in or out of a neighborhood. (Given the theme, we’re guessing they’re shacking up here. They’re unloading an expensive Marshall bass amp, matching lamp sets, and a knife block. Yuppies.)
Another image shows Purtell’s sense of humor about gentrification. Two people are seen paddling down Newtown Creek in a canoe — they look like pioneers, though without a Sacagawea. They’re approaching what we assume is new territory for them, an industrial waterfront landscape, though the buildings look deserted now.
Purtell’s photos are interesting not for their composition or beauty but for their documentary value. He’s captured a very specific moment in the history of these neighborhoods.
As I was walking back to the train I glimpsed a sculpture garden behind a chain-link fence that looks like something you’d find in a slightly progressive suburban West Coast community, somewhere where space is cheap and imagination is in short supply. I looked down and spray painted on the sidewalk with big arrows pointing to the space behind the fence were the words “Gentri-Fuck-Wick.” In this neighborhood, at least, it’s clear this calm before the storm has passed.