Justin Bettman’s Perspective
Photographer Justin Bettman uses found materials to create “sets” for his portraits, then leaves those sets for others to use in their own photos.
Justin Bettman is a fine art and commercial photographer best known for his Set in the Street project. For this series, he created elaborate living spaces made from discarded materials and furniture on the streets of New York; after using them as a backdrop for his own photography shoots, he left them for the public to take their own photos.
Born and raised in Northern California, Bettman moved to New York to work as an advertising art director and commercial photographer. Lacking studio space for his own art photography, he started his Set in the Street project in 2014. Now based in Los Angeles, he works as a commercial, editorial, and fine art photographer for major clients in media and advertising.
In a world where everyone is now a photographer, it takes real skill to cut it as a pro. Justin Bettman splits his time between high-end commercial work, that includes ad campaigns and celebrity portraits, and his personal artistic practice.
Justin Bettman: When I started out shooting bands and realized that, if I ever wanted to make a living doing photography, shooting music was not the way to go. And then started doing both commercial and fine artwork and slowly just started developing over time. I think, in life, there’s no way to be completely different from everything else. But the way that you become different or unique is by combining things that haven’t been combined before.
Bettman: So, as human beings it’s impossible to imagine something that doesn’t involve components of something else that already exists, but you know what the color red looks like, and you know what a goat looks like, so you can imagine a red goat. Same thing with photography, you can imagine a certain lighting style, and you can imagine a certain color palette, and you can mix those together in a unique way or perspective.
Bettman’s most recognizable work to date is the ongoing Set in the Street project, which went viral soon after its launch in 2014.
Bettman: I wanted to make a project that virtually anyone could’ve done, so it’s shot outside, there’s no expense for studio space. I shot it with natural light, so I wasn’t renting studio lights. And I wanted to use primarily found furniture, so anyone could’ve found it, hypothetically.
When Bettman is finished with a set, he leaves it in place, inviting passersby to use the space to create their own images, which are then collected on the photo sharing site, Instagram. The concept soon attracted international attention. and has so far created installations in Berlin and Moscow. Perhaps his most impressive commission was his first, from the famously well-patrolled tourist trap, Times Square.
Bettman: I got an email from the head of the Times Square Alliance, and she reached out saying, “Hey, I saw your project Set in the Street, would you like to do one in Times Square?” And I immediately Googled her to try to see if it was someone pranking me, ’cause I’ve done five of them gorilla style, illegally in New York, and I did one in Palm Springs area. And I thought, there’s no way that the first one that I legally get to do with permission is Times Square. But it ended up being real, and it was an awesome experience working with them.
Bettman: That final pitch that I put together was that it would be bringing New York together by having pieces of furniture from all five boroughs, so there’s something from Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. And so bringing everyone together into Times Square—which is a place that a lot of people who live in New York don’t end up visiting, so trying to bring that all together—it was very organized, we had plans of loading in at three in the morning, and it was interesting to see all the drunk people coming home from bars and then finally going into their hotels. And there’s that few moments of silence before people come out the next day for doing more tourist activities, and it was a really fun experience.
AJC: What was it like standing there?
Bettman: The main word I would say is surreal. Less than a year before I had this idea of building these photo scenes on the street, and then to be asked to do it in Times Square, just didn’t seem real to me. And looking up, and all the billboards and lights, and having thousands of people take photos in the set, it was really, really cool experience.
Set in the Street also opened up new doors for Bettman artistically. The Tribeca Film Festival asked him to create a short using his set in Times Square. For Bettman, who typically chooses to work with actors rather than models, it wasn’t a huge stretch.
Bettman: I think a good thing about working with actors is you can give them a certain expression, and, if they’re a good actor, they can hit that, and you don’t have to tell them how to get there. That’s their job.
His job, meantime, has expanded to include taking celebrity portraits of some of Hollywood’s famous faces. He says he gets his best results when he approaches his subjects not as stars.
Bettman: I always like to do research on someone before I photograph them, to have a little bit of talking point and understand a little bit more about who they are, where they’re from, what their interests are. And I think, if you can immediately create a connection early on, that changes everything. Also, a lot of times doing test shots that end up being used is a good example, when people don’t have their guard up, you get a little bit more honest reaction from them. And then sometimes at the end of the shoot, they feel like they’re done, and then you’re like, “one more.” And you quickly get that last final shot that you were trying to get the whole shoot.
Justin Bettman’s ability to access authenticity within artifices is at the core of all of his work. A recent project poses strangers encountered on the side of the street in front of a white background—once again, simulating the studio setting on the cheap.
Bettman: I always see people on the street, and I want them to come back to the studio and photograph them, but it never works out. So, I figured I need to capture them in the moment, and I’ve been working on that. I also have been working on a project where I’ve been building these quintessential New York scenes and photographing them. Before I moved here, I came from California, and I’d watch movies and TV shows. And everyone talked about well, “This is what New York is,” and there were certain things where I moved here where I was like, “That’s not at all the case.” And then other things that I was like, “Yup, some things never change.” And so I’ve been trying to capture those things that have never changed.
Which kind of encapsulates what Justin Bettman is always going for, to capture what is ever-changing, so that it never changes.