Gowanus Your Face Off
Gowanus, Brooklyn
The crack between two hipster neighborhoods, home to the now superfunded Canal, the flash point for the new 'Buy Local' and textile revolutions, & filled with brilliant bohemians. . . this is Gowanus & it’ll awesome your face off.

Capturing A Photographer: Robert DeRosa

“My landscapes are made out of rivers of concrete, mountains of glass, and tumbleweeds full of liter.”

Originally from Brooklyn, Robert DeRosa is a landscape photographer, husband, father, and all around nice guy. Like many people, 2 1/2 years ago Robert had to make a life changing decision because of the economy. He either had to keep working in financial marketing, which he had done for 32 years, an industry that seemed to be in free fall, or reinvent himself into the artist that was hidden within. Robert made the right choice, he stopped participating in a broken system. In his 60s, with the encouragement of his daughter, wife, and the School of Visual Arts department chair, Katrin Eismann, DeRosa completed his Master of Professional Studies for Digital Photography. With school he began capturing urban environments and found a fascination for the area where he grew up, Park Slope/Gowanus, known then as just South Brooklyn. GYFO met with him at the cosy, Four & Twenty Blackbirds, to learn more about the man behind the lens.

So what part of the neighborhood are you originally from?

First place I lived was Berkeley Place. Then we moved over to Union Street between 5th & 6th, ’til I was about twelve. . . . then we moved out to Queens, [although] all of my family remained in Brooklyn. We’d constantly be [going] back and forth. I used to spend my time in Prospect Park, the Library, the Botanic Gardens, the museum. . . . It was a great place to grow up.”

You took some time away from the neighborhood, how did you decide to start photographing in the Gowanus area?

. . . I shoot mostly in the industrialized business ends of the city. I love the infrastructure that we look past and pass by everyday. Yet it’s the very thing that makes the city go. I find myself drawn to industrialized areas, those things that are sort of marginalize and pushed away. I wanted to document where it lives, how it lives, and the way it supports the city. I find myself shooting around sunrise. In sunrise light everything looks beautiful, even the industry. . . . There are 16 of them [industrialized business zones] in the city; they’re scattered among the various boroughs. But I keep coming back to Brooklyn because there is so much diversity here. In part cause I grew up here and know all the streets. And part[ially] it’s because there’s all of this fascinating diversity. One day as I was shooting, I thought, “Let me just take the old route I used to take into Brooklyn Brooklyn down Eastern Parkway”. . . . [I thought] “the Canal’s not far from me. I wonder what it looks like today.” It’s been probably 50 years since I have lived here. I went down [to the Canal] and said: “This is amazing!”

Gowanus Canal Series by Robert DeRosa

What makes this neighborhood so unique?

I was shooting off the Union Street Bridge and the Carroll Street Bridge [and thought] “So where in this country is this Superfund cleanup site a landmark? . . . right here in Brooklyn!” I looked off the Carroll Street bridge in either direction –shooting at sunrise the way I do, it looked like any river in any European city. I thought: “image if we develop this? What it could become! and how beautiful it could be!” . . . . there’s all this industry that surrounds it [the Canal], and no one’s going to clean that up anytime soon. There’s just this strong push for gentrification in the area; it’s going to overwhelm it sooner or later. That’s kinda like what establishes the industrial business zones in the first place. There’s alway this push for gentrification, and when artist and people are looking for inexpensive places to live. . . . where do you go? You go to the industrial area. There’s loft buildings and rents are cheap. All of a sudden as life moves in, it starts to gentrify. Just look at all of Manhattan: the villages, Soho . . . they couldn’t afford to live in Soho, so they moved to Noho. . . . [then] they moved to Tribeca. They couldn’t afford to live in Tribecca, so moved to Atlantic Avenue . . . . [The] industry is so important because it provides jobs . . . it provides product that we use. It’s kind of gritty and kind of stinky and no one really wants to be next to them. At the same time it’s providing all this stuff that is economically vital to an area and so from here as I can see the Mayor, wants to provide a location and price stability, and created these business zone. For a guy who loves to shoot industrial landscape of this city, the industrialized business zones became the stuff of landscapes. My landscapes are made out of rivers of concrete, mountains of glass, and tumbleweeds full of liter. The industrialized landscape is where I find it. . . . For me the Gowanus is this collision of what I think the industrialized business was formed for. There’s all this industry that needs the Canal to run the barges up and down; to take the gravel and put it in the plants. All the industry is located there, so why would you move it . . . and yet there is such a need for living space, the more an area gentrifies, the more the area around it gets pressurized. It’s this collation of residential and industrial and it’s right here at the Gowanus. So, I wanted to get a flavor of what the Canal was like.”

What Advice Would You Give the 9 Year Old You?

Don’t give up on yourself! . . . . eventually, as I was graduating College, I had the opportunity to be in the arts as recording engineer. But . . . you [have to] start in the mail room. And I thought, man, “I went to college. What am I going to do in the mail room?” I thought: “how am I going to make a living?” Now I am really not sure [how I would have]. I wound up going an entirely different road matching my academic credentials: political science and communications, rather than following my artistic theme. But I always kept my hand in photography, and I would take continuing ed. courses. There came a point about 2 1/2 years ago to just do what I wanted. . . If you look at my resume you would either call it: ‘a model of personal reinvention’ or a ‘train wreck’. Because I have followed the meanderings of my interest all throughout. Whatever I wanted to do I somehow managed to convince an employer that i was able to do, even though I had no experience. I thought [2 1/2 years ago] it’s time for one more reinvention. Encouraged heavily by my daughter and my wife I went back to school at 60. I ran into a brilliant compassionate chairman of the school of visual arts, Katrin Eismann, who looked at my work and decided to take a chance on me. I went back to School of Visual Arts to get a master’s degree. . . . My pieces have been in:  shows. . . magazines. . . in a textbook, [and will be on a] book cover in November. All because I didn’t give up on myself, and my wife & daughter encouraged me.
[To 9 year old me I'd say] ‘persistence is at least as important as consistency, if not more important!’ It’s easy to be consistent . . . Being persistent means you stick with something through all the adversity, through the inevitable . . . the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows in life, and you persistently pursue what is you. So what is me is a landscape photographer who lives in the city, and the city scape and industrial landscapes are my landscapes.”

Your A Walk Across Time series is very different compared to the Gowanus shots. Why is that?

The walk across time came as a result of me originally shooting down in Chinatown for a project. I do a lot of work around the Manhattan bridge . . . the more I walked across it [I thought] “these landscapes change like that! (snaps finger).” There’s always buildings going up and down. The buildings around that bridge have been around since and before the bridge was built and they have managed to evolve in use, are resilient, and are beautiful. For me the walk across the Manhattan bridge . . . became a walk across time. It’s taken me back to when the bridge was built in the early 1900′s. And so I wanted to shoot something that was evocative of the prints, postcards, [and] hand-colored photos that were predominant in the 1900′s. If you look at them they all have this illustrated look. So that [particular project] was meant to capture the sweep of the area, the context of where these buildings sat [long ago].”

A Walk Across Time Series by Robert DeRosa

What do you shoot with?

Canon 7D. It’s really flexible and lightweight. Very fast! Shoots up to 10 frames per second and has HD video . . . which I have not done much yet with. [I'm] hoping to do an interview with people around the Canal.”

Do you have any Exhibits coming up?

I have a few pieces for a show in July at Michael Foley and Sasha Wolf Gallery.”

Three Quick Questions:

Favorite Snack: Gluten Free Carrot Cake

Favor Super Hero: Green Lantern. He didn’t seem to have super powers, but he could create anything he imagined. . . . anything my imagination can conceive of, my camera can create.

Favorite Rock Star: Janis Joplin – she poured every ounce of herself into her art and it was so apparent”

Robert is currently focusing on an untapped artistic vision that he sees in the Gowanus Canal. After the interview he took GYFO to the shores of Gowanus off of 2nd Street. When we got there he pointed out all the clumps of oil floating on the water. He mapped out with his hands how the swirl that the oil creates is something one can only see when looking through a telescope; after he zooms in and frames the water this oil become what looks like a spinning cosmos. The man whose world has changed so much in the past year has truly found his artist calling with these shots and with his stylized vision of the urban industrialized landscape.

For more information check out his website: DeRosaImages.com

or find him at his blog at: blog.DeRosaImages.com

Bonus Your Face Off

In the course of an interview sometimes some really good moments just don’t fit the flow of the overall article. So then one has to cut it, and that just sucks! For the interview with Mr. DeRosa we had to cut a great story about his interaction with someone in Ridgewood. We’d like to offer it as the Bonus because it speaks to the character of both Mr. DeRosa and to the humanity that can be found in this vast city.

Another Industrial Moment:

I was in Ridgewood shooting outside a cement plant one day and I had the [camera] propped on a tripod and I see through the corner of my view finder . . . this big hulking guy is coming towards me. So I’m a friendly guy and . . . say “hi, how you doing” and he’s like: “What are you doing?!!!”. I reply: “Taking pictures…of the industrial area” [he's like] “for what: newspapers? magazines?” [Robert replies] “I’m a fine arts photographer and I exhibit them”. [the guy says,] “really” and then I showed him some of the images I just shot. He says: “can you take a picture of that over there”. . . . and there’s this sign that says: In Loving Memory of Freddy. “Who’s Freddy?” I ask. The guy says: “he was my son”. “So what happened?” [I ask. The guy says,] “He fell in with the wrong crowd.”…I took a shot of it, and he says: “I’d buy it”. I said I’ll just print something up . . . it’s my gift to you. He says: “you come back [and take more], and I’ll buy.”


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