Functional Beauty in Brooklyn with Niv Rozenberg

After moving to New York to further pursue an instruction in photography that began in Jerusalem, Niv Rozenberg began photographing his immediate surroundings in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick. The series that grew out of these snippets is called Boswijck, a reference to Bushwick’s historic name: “little town in the woods.” Settled by the Dutch East India Company but soon annexed by the English, Bushwick’s tableau over the succeeding 334 years resembles that of many New York neighbourhoods.

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The English farming community transitioned to a largely-German town sporting basic industry. The German residents brought Bushwick to the height of its cultural, economic, and architectural significance, before fleeing to the suburbs in the Interwar Period. As factories shuttered or departed, Bushwick’s economic fortunes declined. Italian immigrants with strong social organizations replaced the Germans, before themselves being replaced by African and Caribbean Americans after World War II. Bushwick suffered along with the rest of Brooklyn and the Bronx from the 1970s onward. After the turn of the millennium, the neighbourhood’s coveted location as a supplement to Manhattan motivated reclamation by the artisan class (including the photographer) seeking inexpensive housing.

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Boswijck is a love story to the neighbourhood that was the photographer’s introduction to America, and which has commanded his loyalty ever since. To appreciate Boswijck is to reckon with Bushwick’s diverse history, populace, and architecture. Rozenberg uses his own residential perspective to focus that reckoning. The result is a particular understanding of the neighbourhood. Row houses and tenement buildings may incorporate Queen Anne, Italianate, or New Romanesque stylings, but the base architecture is less important than insight into residents’ lives. The photographer’s bias toward the vernacular, the unstyled home, again reinforces functionality. Altogether, Bushwick is a vibrant and diverse bastion within the urban jungle. Its real value is as testament to its residents’ history and culture.

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Rozenberg’s preferred style of shooting architecture is head-on. He wrangles the whole façade into frame and removes any hint of depth. Absent the impositions of its neighbors, the subject rules. By divorcing buildings from their sisters, Rozenberg emphasizes how the innate qualities of a structure, like style, form, palette, and function, affect its use, and the use of adjacent space. Some of these qualities are further exaggerated with digital manipulation. Boswijck reminds us to draw our gaze away from our devices and cast them to the side, to the sky. If large-format photographs replaced their real-life counterparts, would we pay more attention to the art in architecture?

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It can’t be avoided: Rozenberg’s cheeky. Each photo pushes the boundaries, and makes us curious about the next. Alone they’re gorgeous, but it is only in concert that we can grasp the overall intention. By making each subject two-dimensional and extrapolating its colourway to the background, Rozenberg turns each photo into a graphical representation of the subject. In his own words, the result is a “vivid abstract two-dimensional relic.”  The bright tones and straightforward patterns imitate flags; each photo is a relic, heralding the influences of the families who lived and live in Bushwick.

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Despite ostensibly emphasizing appearance over use, Rozenberg paradoxically causes us to consider the status of a dwelling’s inhabitants. Flat images are usually perceived to be lifeless and simple, but these are the opposite. Our eyes search the windows and porticos for evidence of life. Does that window air-conditioning unit back on to a bedroom, or a living room? Who tends to that plant? Architectural photography typically captures depth to hint at how it will function; by avoiding this urge, Rozenberg forces us to seek out the humanity in an oft-sterile photographic form.

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The subject may be mundane, but the photograph is divine. Rozenberg says he is “fascinated by the way in which the place I live in functions.” We have no reason to doubt his self-analysis. Boswijck treats each decrepit, two-storey box with the same regard as a regal, statuesque row home. According to the author, the structures are of equal significance; each houses a family, and each contributes to the vibrancy of the neighbourhood. Rozenberg’s manipulation reminds us how a minor choice by the architect, engineer, designer, foreman, or resident can change the daily lives of thousands.

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Rozenberg refuses to indulge our search for humanity. His composition and treatment both approximate the Dusseldorf School, espoused by Bernd and Hilla Becher. These photos are straight-on, expansive scapes that minimize the human figure to imitate a topographic style. By replacing his backgrounds, Rozenberg goes one step further than Katharina Fitz, who attempts a similar aesthetic with her series, Paracosmic Houses. The Dusseldorf School’s large-format photographs blur the lines between photography and painting. With Boswijck, the conflated distinction is more between photography and graphic design.

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Rozenberg cares deeply for how our individual, collective surroundings affect our daily lives. He reminds us to take the time to appreciate the eternal lookers-on, those bystanders and coaches that define the boundaries of our living experiences and witness our actions in the playing-field of urban thoroughfares. By isolating and deconstructing Bushwick, the photographer reproduces the detached, focused appreciation one usually only experiences alone in the woods. Boswijck may have begun as an isolated “little town in the woods,” but Niv Rozenberg’s work deserves to populate a well-trafficked wall. We sincerely encourage you to peruse his oeuvre, including additional examples of this series, here.

Interview (1)

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