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