Set In The Street: Justin Bettman’s Studio Is The Sidewalk
I recently met up with Justin Bettman, a photographer from the San Francisco Bay area in California. His photo illustrations tell a beautifully, apparently simple story with multi layers if you spend the time to delve, and you should.
The execution of the tableaus depend not on photoshop, nor the limitations of a confined studio. You may say the studio gives you control, but the way he shoots these images, adds another dimension to the art: a living scene is created on the street, photographed, and the set left for viewers to interact with, re-photograph, instagram, and generally share.
Photoinduced: When did you first pick up a camera?
JUSTIN BETTMAN: Early in high school, I got my first point and shoot digital camera to go on a family vacation. Actually, I was going to Israel for a trip, and so, I brought a camera there, and I just really liked taking pictures, but nothing special, just a point and shoot. It was a Canon Power Shot. And then I had a clothing company in high school, and I sponsored bands. I took my dad’s camera. He had an SLR, one of the first Canon Rebel’s. I would take pictures of the bands wearing the clothes. He showed me how to do it. Then I started enjoying taking pictures of these bands more than I did of doing the clothing company, and left that and just did photography.
Photoinduced: Did you make money from that?
JUSTIN BETTMAN: That’s how I paid for all of my expenses in high school.
Photoinduced: So let’s talk about the project. What is the name of this project that you do, the photographs on the street?
JUSTIN BETTMAN: It’s called “Set in the Street.” It’s kinda like a double play of it literally takes place set in the street, but it’s also the sets that are built in the street.
PI: How did the whole idea come about?
JB: I’d been wanting to shoot really stylized sets for a while, and I was trying – I started reaching out to different set designers, and met with a few. I met with this girl, Gozde Eker, and she was definitely on the same wavelength. We had the same inspiration and I showed her a mood board of stuff that I wanted to shoot and she was totally on board. We were discussing, all right, we can do it, or we have the same vision, but how are we going to do it? We don’t have a client or a budget behind it. How can we make this happen? My friend in LA had a huge studio, but well, we can’t do it in LA. We’re both in New York. I didn’t have any studio hookups here. We were on her roof talking, and I looked down and I said, “Could we just shoot it outside?” “If we’re paying for a studio, we’re paying for a wall and a floor, and that’s readily available to everyone. That’s what a building and a sidewalk is.” And so that was how it started.
From there, I said, “Well, if we’re going to shoot it outside, what if we used furniture that we found from outside?” That was the next step to it. Then, we did the first shoot just like that. As we were doing it, people just kept asking to take pictures and walking by.Everyone was so interested in what we were doing.
After we did the set, we broke it down, and threw everything away. My friend Jackie suggested we leave it up for people to interact with. “Yeah, but how do we get to like, maintain control over it?” And she’ thought of doing a hashtag. That’s kind of how it came about.
PI: What is the process? You’d scout locations and then—?
JB: So the first step is to kind of find the first hero item, right, so whether that’s a big bathtub or a couch or a bed, whatever that is. And that kinda informs what the rest of the set will be like and the color palette. If the couch is yellow, green, and blue, that’s going to dictate, and that’s what we did for one of the sets. It was a yellow and blue and white color palette. You need that first hero piece.
And then, from there, it’s finding the location that will work well with that. The locations are really hard to find because you need a wall that doesn’t have any windows that you think you can get away with without getting in trouble. There’s a lot of different aspects that you kinda have to weigh in, too.
PI: How long between the time you find this piece, do you actually create the piece?
JB: Almost everything in all these sets is found furniture, so it really depends on how long it takes to find everything. My friend has a backyard – or a parking spot that they don’t use. And so, he lets me store everything there, so I don’t have to worry about bringing in strangers’ trash into my apartment.
PI: Why, because there’s the problem with infestation and—?
PI: Yeah, I actually spray everything a few times to make sure that there isn’t an issue with that. And for the couches and stuff, I wrapped it in plastic wrap to suffocate anything that maybe was potentially in there. So, I really wanted to have my bases covered on that.
PI: You seem to set things up at night. In the process steps you now have the props?
PI: You’ve found a proper location, and then what happens?
JB: So the first step is, if there is parking on the side of the street that I want to shoot on, I need to park my car there the day that there’s street cleaning, so to ensure that no other car is blocking the shot when I actually want to shoot it, because I shoot it from across the street. So that’s the first step. The next step is getting a U-Haul, picking up all the furniture, putting it in the car, driving there at like, three a.m., and then setting up everything, get all the props and everything set, wait for the sun to come up to the perfect level, just at sunrise, take the shot, and then leave. And then, it’s sitting in bed on Instagram and seeing what other tweets or what other Instagrams people have made at these sets and checking out the hashtag.
PI: How long does the set generally stay up?
JB: The shortest one was in Manhattan and it was only up for three hours. And the longest one that stayed up for eight days in Bushwick.
PI: Then you guys come and you clean up the scene?
JB: Yeah.There’s a note at each set with instructions for hashtagging it with the hashtag set in the street. And then, also, there’s an asterisk at the bottom that says, “Set will be removed on blank date.” Actually, it’s happened so far that all the pieces get stolen before that day comes. But yes, we do plan to clean up everything, so we’re not littering.
PI: Awesome. And what do you shoot with?
JB: I shoot it with a Canon 5D Mark II. I’m looking for the next round to maybe shoot on the medium format back, so that way we have more resolution, since we’re cropping it and then revealing.
PI: What’s the life of these images after you’ve made them? Instagram or—?
JB: They live on Instagram, yeah, but I actually built an interactive site, setinthestreet.com. I designed it. It’s cool because you can look at the images and initially, it shows the cropped in image, and it looks like it was shot in a studio. And then, if you mouse over it, it reveals, no, this is actually shot on the street. And on there is a map of each location that we shot at and we’re working on an interface to show the Instagrams that other people have taken there and a little bit more information about the project.
PI: Awesome. So what’s next for the project?
JB: I think we’re just going to keep doing more of these sets. Ideally, at some point, it’d be cool to do a residency, where I would go to Paris for a month and collect furniture there for a month, and on the last day, build one of these sets and leave and go to Brazil and do one in Rio. So, that’s kind of the next step after I do some more in New York and maybe in the US, to try doing it internationally and kind of see how different these sets look when they’re in different parts of the world.
PI: Are there other photographic projects you’re currently working on?
JB: I’m always shooting every day. I’m doing an Instagram project right now called Dino Voyager. And I have a really small dinosaur that I bring in my pocket everywhere. I’ll do photos of that dinosaur wherever I am, just kind of a fun little project.
PI: Do you always have projects going on?
JB: I try to – I used to shoot an image here and an image there. And now, I’m trying to do more project based stuff, so it’s a little bit more cohesive and more powerful than a single image.
PI: And so, that way, as you’re walking around shooting, you kind of have an idea, “Oh okay, here’s a photo that would fit into a certain project”—
PI: It’s kind of the lens that you’re looking through and seeing life.
N.B. Justin just completed a #setinthestreet in Times Square NYC, and a special edition at he Tribeca Film Festival