Around nine years ago, photographer Thomas Rupolo took his first shots of the scenery in a neighborhood he had only ever heard about: Red Hook.
Thousands of photographs and a few years later, Rupolo – a Long Island native and 18-year Brooklyn resident – realized that the once overlooked-by-outsiders neighborhood had gone “from a place people had heard of and were afraid of to being cool and being a place where people want to go,” and that it was time to make a book that would paint “a vivid portrait of a unique neighborhood” full of history and personal stories from residents who had lived there for generations.
Images of Red Hook hit the shelves and libraries in October – right before Hurricane Sandy hit. Already a coffeetable classic, the book’s images were now suddenly even more poignant a time capsule. We spoke with Rupolo about what it means to be a photographer, what is so special about Red Hook, and how he thinks it and its people will survive anything.
What inspired your fascination with Red Hook?
The first time I went there, I fell in love with the visual aspect of it. I love my skies. Red Hook is very low-lying and lends itself to wider expanses of view, whether industrial properties or abandoned waterfront. I still go. I have friends there who have restaurants and now I don’t go specifically on photo trips.
Did your books survive Hurricane Sandy?
We printed 1,600 copies, self-published through a company I work with that helps distribute it to libraries and book stores. Then the hurricane hit so I stopped distribution because I didn’t know if I had any copies left. Finally, about 150 made it unscathed. Fortunately, my designer and I have original files and pictures.
What did the neighborhood look like post-Sandy? How did it feel?
I went within a few days because I know a lot of people down there and I was helping them clean out their spaces. It was rough. Everything was cold and wet and there was a layer of oily residue on everything between heating oils and gasoline that intermingled with the seawater itself. So you’d get this on you and my friend at Perch had an entire room full of boxes and boxes of ceramics that were soaked in the stuff. It was definitely a depressing sight of the sidewalk full of people’s lives.
But seeing the way people came together – local businesses, my friends at Brooklyn Crab feeding people every day and especially with the Red Hook Initiative going from a primarily educational organization to become a relief organization so quickly – was so beyond the call of duty. Ultimately, it really did prove one of the themes of the book: that there is this small town aspect to Red Hook where people are concerned with their neighbors. It’s almost cliché to say that, but here is the proof.
What should people get out of your book, then and now?
I was going to treat it as an art book with Red Hook as an art subject, like a scrapbook, but thankfully my designer disagreed. We kept one photo per page, but added collages and quotations, and then the introduction was stretched out. It became the world’s biggest postcard.
It really is a celebration of a place. The history is a little dark, but the sum total is it is a vibrant and colorful place, and very interesting visually. A lot of things have happened here, and many great things will continue to happen here because it has always attracted unique individuals. In a way it is a land that time forgot, due mainly to the lack of public transportation, which is both a blessing and a curse that has preserved Red Hook as much as it has hampered it.
I am particularly proud of the history and research I did. The kind of questions I had are the questions a lot of people have. What is that building? How did it get there? The whole neighborhood is like that.
The thing about the flood is it didn’t change the neighborhood so much physically. Maybe some different faces will walk around and some people won’t come back, but others will be drawn in.
What is the power of photography?
I’ve always had a camera with me and when I started, taking pictures was a lot more expensive and developers have a tendency to ruin your photos. Then I moved to slide film. I would take photos in the Adirondacks, of the Hudson Valley… My dream is to make that style of book for Brooklyn or upstate river towns. Originally I was a nature photographer, then I went to seeing nature creeping into man-made structures, now man-made structures.
[After Sandy] people asked about a second edition, but I didn’t go out and take disaster porn stuff. It didn’t feel right. As much as it needs to be captured, that’s not my strength. I find beauty in things. Mankind always tries to crush nature and nature always has a way of coming back. I like seeing that margin area – the industrial area and nature coming back.
What’s your elevator pitch for Images of Red Hook?
It represents a moment in time that will be changing. Since it’s a pretty limited stock, probably now is the only time you can get it. So if you have any interest at all in Red Hook visually or the history of it, it’s definitely something worth looking at.
Images of Red Hook has a cover price of $22 and can be found at Freebird Books, Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, Brooklyn Crab, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, Galiano Real Estate, Baked, Classic Impressions, PS Bookshop, Roots Café, and BookCourt.