Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.
"I didn't have a camera in my hand before coming to New York," says photographer Stéphane Missier, but the city inspired him to start shooting. Now eight years later, he has hit every urban explorer's favorite sitethough don't call him an urban explorer. Missier was born in the small town of Metz, in northeast France, and although he's spent nearly a third of his life in his native country, he maintains that he only has the accent to prove it. "My biggest inspiration is New York," he says, and he spends his days capturing the street life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, focusing on urban ruins and oft-forgotten corners of the city.
What do you think your photos say about New York City?
I think that the main comment I get about my pictures is they have an atemporal
feeling to them. They look like New York in the '70s or the '80s. When you look at my work, you don't know when those pictures were taken. I'm trying to capture the New York I have in my head. Being a foreigner, I grew up with images of the city and pop culture references from back in the '90s. I guess at the beginning I was just trying to capture the things that I've seen. The New York of today is boring
. I guess New York is not the same anymore. It's completely different, even Brooklyn. So I was never interested in taking pictures in SoHo and all that stuff. I wanted to find the real vibe, the real New York. I wanted to recreate the authenticity I have seen in movies
. Al Pacino, Carlito's Way, Bryan de Palma, Spike Lee. That's the New York I wanted to capture. That's the inspiration.
Why do you think street photography is important?
You just capture the time. In my case, it's just my expression of my time in New York. I'm not from here, so if I ever tried to live somewhere else in the future, I would have those pictures as a memory of my time in New York.
What attracts you to ruins photography?
I really started photographing because of street art
. I'm a big street art fan, and I was lucky enough to move back to New York in 2007 when it was really the explosion of street art. Not graffiti, but wheat pastes and stencil artists. I was just driving around Brooklyn and Manhattan chasing those pieces. It was the very beginning of Flickr, and it was some kind of a competition. I learned about the Freedom Tunnel
, and thought, 'wow, I want to go there.' So I went, and that's when I fell in love with that feeling, the adrenaline. After awhile I went to the most iconic abandoned places in New York, like the Red Hook grain terminal
. I went six or seven times with different people, taking them up on the roof, just hanging around waiting for the sunset.
Do you have a favorite abandoned place in New York?
Whenever you're on the highway or around Red Hook and you can see that massive piece of concrete, the Red Hook grain terminal...the view on the roof is amazing. I think it's the highest point in that section of Brooklyn. You've got Lady Liberty on the side, and when the sun sets, it's just magical
. I wish I could go there more often. The Freedom Tunnel is also pretty dope, although the murals aren't there anymore. It's just the feeling, the beams of light hitting the tracks, and the light on the wall, and the little bit of danger
How do you feel about the phrase "urban exploration"?
I don't like that phrase, because at the end of the day, it's still street photography
. I was never in my head part of that "urbex" movement. I always distanced myself from urban exploration. It's like, its street photography, under the street. I went to Detroit with a friend, and we just went everywhere in terms of urban exploration. And after that, after being on top of Michigan Central Station
...everything felt so boring after that. In my head, I went to the best destination ever, and when I came back to New York I was back on photographing people.
Do you find photographing a living subject more intimidating than breaking and entering?
It's completely different. Taking pictures of kids in Bushwick, it's not illegal. You just walk up to them and ask their mothers if you can take a picture of their sons. Being in the Freedom Tunnel, with the train that passes by, trying not to get caught by the Amtrak police, or the grain terminal, with the Coast Guard next to it... Once we saw a flash from the roof, and we saw cops as we were coming out through Red Hook Park, so you had that adrenaline directly linked to where you are.
Have you ever been confronted while taking pictures?
I've gotten dirty looks and stuff like that, but that was more in East Williamsburg with the hasidim. They don't really like to see anyone with a camera next to their family and their houses. I don't usually walk with my camera in my hand, I walk with it in my backpack. Then I start to talk to people and I pull out the camera, and they all want to be photographed. I don't steal their pictures, I always ask, and most of the time, people say yes. Usually they're like, 'oh yeah, no one ever took my picture.' They feel flattered that someone is paying attention to them. I always email them the pictures, and if they don't have email, I just go back to their house and drop a print for them, like with this one 86-year-old Cuban man.
Does photographing the changing city make you sad? Do you feel as though something is being lost, or do you find the process very photogenic?
It definitely makes me sad. I walk through my old neighborhood and nothing's the same. I walk past those beat up walls, the iconic graffiti and pieces of art, and it's gone. The streets are in constant flux. One time, I was shooting a friend and I said, 'I know a very nice wall, we'll shoot there.' We went there and it was repainted. If you see something you like you've got to take a picture right now because you don't know if it's going to last. It's almost like Manhattan doesn't have any soul anymore, and that soul is disappearing in some sections of Brooklyn, too. So from a photography standpoint I need to find another turf. Living in Bed-Stuy, I'd just walk around my block, didn't have to take the subway or travel. Everything felt so genuine. Now I have to find other places.
It's difficult for me to talk about gentrification because I'm not a native New Yorker. I'm not even from the U.S. I moved to Bed Stuy in 2007. I am technically a gentrifier, but I have a bunch of principles I try to respect when I go to a new neighborhood. You try to know the neighborhood where you are. When you know your neighborhood, you're going to respect it and the residents.
What kind of camera do you use? Do you ever use film?
I have one 50 millimeter for portraits and one 28-135 millimeter. I mainly use a Canon 7D, but I also have a Contax T2. I mainly shoot with the 28-135 one, the other one is just to play around. I feel like you either do film or digital photography. I feel like it's difficult to do go between the two. Ninety percent of the photos on my website are digital. With digital, you don't have to pay a lot of money and you can shoot a lot. It's lazy, but I learned photography on a digital camera.
Do you have a favorite photo or photo taking experience?
From my collection, I have two or three pictures that I really, really like. One is a black and white photo of a guy in front of a wall of speakers in a street. It's not an amazing picture, but it was a block party in front of my house. I love that picture because of the moment, and all the memories I have of living on that block in Bed-Stuy.
Also, one of a guy with a tattoo of his chest that says "In memory of mom." I really like that picture. We were talking about where he got the tattoo, and the guy said he got it in jail, and then we talked about how he ended up in jail. My favorite pictures are linked to the moments and conversations with the people. My favorite pictures have an amazing story in the background.
In your photos of the Bushwick train tracks, were people living there when you shot those images?
I didn't see those guys. Those people had dogs and stuff, and some people got bit by the dogs. There was no one there, just toys and books and mattresses.
You used to go by Charles Le Brigand - what happened to that identity?
It's like your Hotmail email when you were 17. You're embarrassed. It was my alter ego. I don't use it anymore. The thing is, I had a lot of attention on my photos when I had that name. Now I don't want to differentiate myself.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration or influence?
My biggest inspiration is New York. I didn't have a camera in my hand before going to New York, and then I realized stuff was happening. Seven years ago, no one was in Bushwick and you had some nice spaces and I was like, 'oh, I'm going to document street art.' I saw the life happening around pieces of art, and I dropped street art
and focused on people and places.