When we think of contemporary images of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, its built environment tends to come to mind – cranes, dry docks, and workshops built across the centuries to drive industry forward. But the Yard has always been a “peopled” place – yes, the number of men and women occupying those buildings has fluctuated greatly, but this has always been a place of work, today teeming with to more than 7,000 workers.
Few artists have done a more beautiful job of peopling the imagery of the Navy Yard than photographer Travis Magee. Selected to be part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92’s inaugural class of visiting artists in 2013, Travis’ work is focused very much on people and motion. This is in large measure due to the fact that he began his artistic career as a dancer. He moved to New York City with his family at age 14 to begin serious dance training, and after high school he studied contemporary dance at the Boston Conservatory. He then returned to New York to embark on his professional career, though his path would diverge somewhat.
All the while, photography had been a hobby for Travis, and he recalls picking up his first camera at the age of 10 and learning the discipline as a teenager living in NYC, developing his own work. When he decided in his mid-20’s that he wanted to transition from dance to photography, he realized that he could put his prodigious skill as a hobbyist to work. One of the things he appreciates now about photography is that it allows him the opportunity to have more creative control over his artistic output.
“As a performer you are realizing somebody else’s vision,” Travis said in a recent conversation. “So the choreographer is the creator. As a performer you’re more like paint, part of making the choreographer’s dream come alive. As a photographer it’s completely my work. Everything about it is me. I’m much more part of the creative process that way. Because I am the creative process. If somebody likes it, it’s because of my work. If they hate it, it’s still my work. Whereas when you’re a performer, you’re interpreting someone else’s vision.”
A big part of that vision? “I always work with people,” he says, often putting them in motion, tapping into his experience as a dancer to bring the animated subjects – and even the inanimate objects around them – to life. In much of his work, including commercial work he has done for print, that often means drawing out the movement in clothes and fabrics – soft, fluid, malleable surfaces. The Brooklyn Navy Yard offers few of those, but he was still able to draw life out of seemingly rigid steel, concrete, and machinery.
Spending time around the Yard – the real benefit of being a BLDG 92 Visiting Artist – and gaining a greater appreciation for the history of the site was an important step in his creative process. “Once I’m in a space, I can have a much better idea of what’s the space saying to me, what are the benefits of the space, how do I want to shoot the space and what kind of feeing is that.”
As part of his residency at the Navy Yard, Travis did a shoot inside Woodside Press, a letterpress and bookbinding shop that still uses traditional printing methods, including an enormous Mergenthaler Linotype Machine (machines which were, incidentally, manufactured just outside the gates of the Yard for several decades, on Grand Ave and Park Ave in Clinton Hill). As he had dancers move around this enormous machinery, he was, he said, “imagining a couple that had been there in the 1950’s,” a sort of historical homage to an industrial enterprise that is still very much alive today.
Combining moving figures with historical sites and artifacts was very much a theme of Travis’ work at the Yard, resulting in a sort of “history of the Navy Yard in dance photography.” We can see this also in the piece he shot in the lobby of BLDG 92, as people ascend the enormous 22,500-pound anchor, as if they’re escaping a roiling sea of concrete below to the safety of the USS Austin above.
Join us to find your own feel of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and bring the place to life through your photographs on our upcoming Seasonal Photography Tour, taking place this Saturday, October 25, at 11am – the last such tour of 2014! As part of the tour, we invite all of the participants to submit their photos for our photography contest, which will be judged by Travis – his three favorite shots will be awarded a special place of honor among the other seasonal finalists (as well as two free tickets on any of our future Yard tours), and be entered to win our year-end contest (a free tour of the Yard for up to 30 people). See the winners so far from the winter, spring, and summer, as well as the 2013 champs.
Turnstile Tours offers the Seasonal Photography Tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard four times throughout the year. The last tour of the 2014 season will be Saturday, October 25 at 11am. Get more information here, and advance ticket purchase is highly recommended. We also offer our Past, Present & Future Tour of the Brooklyn Navy Yard every Saturday and Sunday 2:30-4:30pm, and other special themed tours of the Yard. All tours are offered in partnership with and begin at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, which offers free admission to three floors of exhibitions on the yard’s past and present and a host of great special events and programs.