Two years ago, Sebastien Barre decided that he wanted to be a better photographer. He bought a new camera, started shooting everything in sight, and began studying the results.
His studies have born fruit: earlier this summer, he had his first solo show at Uncommon Grounds in Albany, a solo exhibition of his explorations of abandoned urban spaces. Last month, he published “The Unnoticed,” a stunning coffee table book based on that same series of photographs. He’s tracked his photographic progress in Flickr sets and his new photoblog is chock-full of both eye-popping photos and gracious, generous photographic advice.
We caught up with him recently and he kindly agreed to answer our pesky questions. Here’s Part 1 of our interview. We’ll publish Part 2 tomorrow.
How long have you been shooting photos?
Not very long. I started around 2005 with a small Point&Shoot. I had great fun but by 2008 I felt I had outgrown this type of camera. I had a good sense of what I wanted to capture and what kind of gear would allow me to do so. I bought my first semi-pro camera in December that year. I checked its internals a few days ago and it appears I have taken about 32,000 photos with my favorite companion. I guess you can say I am committed at this point.
How did you learn your craft? Did you go to school for photography?
I didn’t. I picked up a camera and started experimenting with it. After a while I realized I had an affinity for specific subjects, such as abandoned buildings or live performances. The subjects you love are the ones you are bound to capture the best. I do read about photography on a daily basis. There is a huge amount of literature readily available but also a lot to learn and a lot of inspiration to be found by visiting galleries, checking out shows, or looking at photos online. A few of my close friends are into photography as well and we have a lot of back and forth about our work, sharing opinions on composition, colors, subjects, shows, business, ethics, etc. We don’t pull punches. This is how we progress and how we keep ourselves on our toes. It is especially useful to me since I am colorblind… and opinionated. It is important to keep a level head and put things in perspective so I value feedback, especially from photographers who are more talented and take much greater risks, artistically or even physically.
You’re French. How did you end up in Albany?
For work. I finished my PhD in biomedical engineering in 2001 and a software company I had collaborated with remotely offered me a position in Clifton Park. The market in France wasn’t so thrilling and I needed to broaden my horizons. I am still working with them to this day. The company has grown 8-fold and I love what I am doing. This country is my home now. I bought a house in Center Square in 2005, which is a great neighborhood. There is a lot to love in the Capital District.
How long did it take to shoot the photos for this book? How many places did you go to?
I started right away in December 2008 with my first DSLR camera. A friend of mine invited me to visit a dilapidated Coke Plant in Troy, NY and I was hooked. The plant has been demolished since then but the pictures live on. The book covers 10 different places. We try to explore new abandoned locations on a regular basis. The most recent trip featured in the book dates back March 2010 at the Holy Cross Campus in Rhinebeck, NY, a juvenile detention center that closed in 2000. As of today, July 2010, I have collected photos of 4 more locations; I will put them online soon and hopefully publish a second volume next year.
Do you have a favorite photo that you shot for this book?
I think the photo of the Starlite Theater on the cover of the book is pretty emblematic of the subject. This is a place haunted by a lot of memories, a building that brought back memories for a lot of people in the area. I really like hearing what people have to say about their experiences with these places in their glory days. I have no doubt the Starlite was quite a show in the past, but I find it beautiful reclaimed by nature too. The chairs are gone now so I am glad a few of us captured this instant. From a technical point of view this was the first time I used a wide angle lens and one of the few black & white photos I am satisfied with. It also reminds me it is worth reaching higher ground and getting dirty from time to time. I probably inhaled my yearly quota of asbestos that day.
What was the most dangerous thing you did while shooting the photos for this book?
I don’t think we have done anything "too" dangerous. It is probably all relative though. These places are hazardous. There is a fair amount of physical risk involved but we really try to stay on the safe side. We pack water, flashlights, masks, some medical supplies, etc. I trust my friends. We love the exploration but we would rather get back home in one piece. As a matter of fact the most damaged parts are not always captured on film. Just a few days ago we walked into a huge dining room whose wooden floor had collapsed because of water damage. The way the floor was sloping towards a gaping, inscrutable black hole was fascinating but the ground was clearly giving up on us. We couldn’t get close enough to take a safe shot. I have a small scar as a souvenir of a very uncooperative wall at the Central Warehouse back in March 2009, and I went straight through a set of stairs at Cayadutta Tanning in July of the same year. Nothing major but I have learned to pay more attention. The worst that has happened since then (knock on wood) was to getting kicked out of town by the local Millbrook police last March and being chased by a guy yelling at me in Spanish a few days ago in Monticello. In the former case, this was for our own good since the place was really structurally unsound.
Here’s Part 2 of this interview.