The deer head shares the scene with two human inhabitants in Bettman's first set. Courtesy of Justin Bettman

Found furniture at its most Wes Anderson.

On his way to work in Brooklyn one morning, the photographer Justin Bettman stumbled across a mounted deer head on the side of the road. Most people would leave it. Not Bettman. He picked it up, then ran the mile-and-a-half back home carrying it in front of him.

“I think people thought I was doing funny performance art,” he told Yahoo News.

Not exactly. In that discarded deer head, Bettman had found the “hero piece” for his next photography set.

Bettman’s Set in the Street series is part photography, part public art installation. Using only found objects—from off the street, from thrift stores, from friends’ garbage piles—Bettman assembles surreal interior scenes on city streets, then sets up his shot. When he’s done, he leaves the set behind for the public to interact with. As of now, he’s built sets in New York, San Francisco, London, and Berlin. A selection of images of the scenes is on view through March 7 at Skylight at Moynihan Station in New York as part of the Spring/Break Art Show.

Courtesy of Justin Bettman

His first set went up in Brooklyn in 2014. Before that, he’d been mainly shooting “a lot of exterior scenes that looked like movie stills,” he tells CityLab. Interested in exploring interior backdrops, he scouted around local studios, but was put off by the cost. Then he realized that all he needed was a wall and a floor. “And all of New York is made of walls and floors,” he says. “I figured, I’ll just do it in the street.”

Courtesy of Justin Bettman

The street, he decided, would also double as his prop closet. He started scouring the city for set pieces. It takes him as long as a month to source a whole scene, he says, but it starts with finding one standout item to make the whole concept come together.  

For his first set, he papered over a Bushwick mural, dragged a salvaged couch into the center, and added a few extra touches: a potted plant and a lamp. Two kids sat in the middle, typing out a long spool of yellow paper. The resulting photograph was a very Wes Anderson-style tableau. After he captured it, Bettman dismantled the set.

Courtesy of Justin Bettman

“But people had kept coming up to me while I was shooting, asking if they could take pictures with the set,” he says. “I realized I had missed out on a big opportunity to let the public engage.”

His first set was the only one that Bettman dismantled. Starting with the second one—the deer-head bedecked room occupied by two elderly people—he added a sign encouraging people to stage their own photos and to post them to Instagram with the hashtag #setinthestreet.

“It just exploded,” he says. His backdrops became the sites of marriage proposals, breakdancing antics, and general posing. And through the Instagram hashtag, he could track the evolution of his sets. They typically only stay standing for a few days after he sets them up, but in that time, he watches his carefully sourced objects replaced, and finally removed, until nothing is left.

set vs nature. nature wins #setinthestreet :(

A photo posted by khsindesign (@khsindesign) on

Bettman’s scenes imbued these discarded objects with new value. “Individually, they might not mean anything,” he says, “but together they do.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A rendering of Quayside, the waterfront development now being planned for Toronto.
    Solutions

    A Big Master Plan for Google's Growing Smart City

    Google sibling company Sidewalk Labs has revealed its master plan for the controversial Quayside waterfront development—and it’s a lot bigger.

  2. Design

    What Cities Can Do to Help Birds and Bees Survive

    Pollinators—the wildlife that shuffle pollen between flowers—are being decimated. But they may still thrive with enough help from urban humans.

  3. a photo of commuters on Oakland's Bay Bridge.
    Transportation

    Can Waze Convince Commuters to Carpool Again?

    Google’s wayfinding company wants to help drivers and riders find each other on its navigation app—and ease traffic congestion along the way.

  4. Anthony Bourdain in 2001, when he was still the chef-owner of Les Halles in New York City.
    Life

    Urbanists Could Learn a Lot From Anthony Bourdain

    The work of the acclaimed chef and writer, who has died at 61, provides a model for a truly inclusive urbanism based on the creativity of all human beings.

  5. a photo of a highway
    Transportation

    Americans Are Spending Billions on Bad Highway Expansions

    PIRG’s annual list of “highway boondoggles” includes nine transportation projects that will cost a total of $25 billion while driving up emissions.

×