The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

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DEC 09-JAN 10 Issue

JOSHUA DERR: Bearing Witness to Gentrification

The first thing you notice about photographer Josh Derr’s work is the color. Whether you’re looking at a blue sky, a red truck, or something yellow or green, his dazzling hues practically jump off the page and demand attention.

Late afternoon in DUMBO. Photos by Josh Derr.
Late afternoon in DUMBO. Photos by Josh Derr.

“I use a process called HDR, High Dynamic Range,” he begins. “It’s a versatile process where you take three shots of everything, at three different exposures. You have a properly exposed frame, another that is over exposed, and another that is under exposed. A computer program then combines them into one image. It’s great because having the extra frames gives the program a way to pull out color information and you get detail that would otherwise be lost in the shadows. The result is more vivid than traditional photographic processes.”

True enough. But Derr has another, more personal, reason for favoring HDR. “I’m partly color blind, especially blue/green,” he admits, “so I like my blues to be bluer than other people’s.”

Water under the Manhattan Bridge.
Water under the Manhattan Bridge.

Derr began using HDR after moving to Brooklyn in 1999 for a volunteer job at the Watchtower, a monthly magazine published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He currently juggles numerous theological duties: He is an IT specialist for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and is a minister at a largely Haitian congregation in Crown Heights.

Still, despite a six-day-a-week work schedule, Derr always makes time to take pictures. His images of DUMBO, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Brooklyn Heights can be seen on Flickr—and purchased through Imagekind—and have appeared in the Gothamist, the New York Times, and Brooklyn Heights blog. They’ve also been published on and used in the promotional materials of Arts at St. Ann’s and the DUMBO Neighborhood Association.

Derr concedes that he has a lot on his plate, but he seems to take everything in stride. Over cups of mint tea in DUMBO’s hip Baco Café and Boutique, the 32-year-old Californian explains that he tries to avoid getting mired in political debate. At the same time, he can’t help but react to the development he’s seen since moving to Brooklyn slightly more than a decade ago.

“DUMBO was rough when I arrived,” he begins. “There is a building complex on Sand Street that is owned by The Watchtower where about 900 staff live. When I first moved in, the area was not as refined as it is now, with galleries, shops, and brand name stores. Before, there were art collectives and there was more of an artist presence in the community. Right up the street there was the Between the Bridges Bar, which looked like a dive. I guess something was lost, and something gained.”

Among the losses, Derr says, is DUMBO’s once-gritty feel—the abandoned warehouses and factories, broken concrete, and glass shards that used to litter the ground. He is saddened, he says, by the destruction of numerous art deco structures, one of which, the Purchase Building, was knocked down to create a parking lot that now houses the Brooklyn Flea each Sunday.

Such shifts compel Derr to document what he sees—both before, and as it changes. “I love to shoot light at sunrise and sunset,” he says. “I walk the most indirect route possible to and from work. Around 7:00 a.m. I get some fantastic shots of the neighborhood. At that time very few people are out and you get the golden hour. The sun is really low in the sky and the sunlight has a distinctive yellow-gold tint. You have much more dramatic shadows and the ambient light bounces off surfaces.”

His favorite subjects, he says, are buildings, skylines, street scenes, and people. And his impetus for taking pictures?

Derr responds immediately, as if the question requires no thought. “My dad. When I was very little my father, a semi-professional photographer, would shoot weddings for co-workers and friends. He’d also take photos for the doctors he worked with at the John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek. He was a radiology technician and taught RT classes at Merritt College, but the money he made from photography paid for family vacations and additional camera equipment.”

Derr’s smile widens as he summons a host of childhood memories about accompanying his dad on weekend jobs. “He gave me a Canon TX SLR camera when I was barely five years old, an old camera with manual everything. He loaded it with black-and-white film and I took pictures whenever I tagged along,” he explains. “I was a kid, with a camera, having fun. I rarely knew anyone at any of the shoots so I’d take pictures of interesting things I found. I remember one time taking photos of a watermelon carved in the shape of a whale. Within a couple of years my father was selling some of my pictures as part of the wedding package.”

Derr was seven or eight at the time of his first sale and recalls his dad being encouraging of his talent, taking the time to teach him camera basics, from composition to use of a grey card and light meter. He also taught him to develop film, using makeshift darkrooms set up in the garage or bathroom of their Castro Valley home.

While other kids were playing video games or skateboarding, Derr was studying how to mix chemicals and assisting his father. He did this through high school. “I came to New York when I was 21 and brought the same Canon TX camera with me,” he says. “I would buy black-and-white film and, since I didn’t have a darkroom, I’d have it printed up in a little film processing place on Montague Street. This was 2000, just when digital was taking off. For a while my interest in photography waned a bit and I began pursuing 3D animation. But as I walked around DUMBO, I got more and more interested in the changes that were happening in the neighborhood and before I knew it, that interest had sucked me back into photography.”

While Derr retired his Canon TX for a digital camera about eight years ago, he has never tired of stomping Brooklyn’s streets to capture their grime and glamour. He loves photographing the Manhattan Bridge, his favorite, and points to a picture of the 100-year-old span, it’s blue steel reflected in the water, as indicative of the affection he feels toward his adopted home. “It’s grungy, a little dirty, a little cloudy, but it is very much New York,” he laughs.

And his faith? Does being a Witness find expression in his art, or is it kept in a separate life compartment?

This time, Derr pauses before answering. “My faith is very much part of my life,” he says. “Much of the warmth I put into my photography, I get from my faith. Sometimes you see photographers who shoot dark subject matter or who have a dark style. For me, a lot of times, I look at the city, and sure, it has its problems. But there’s hope. I have a very warm feeling for New Yorkers and New York City. We have flaws, cracks, and defects, but there is an inner radiance, too.”

The truth of this statement seems to stun Derr, and he stops for a few seconds before continuing. “I love Brooklyn. If I have a choice, I don’t want to leave,” he says.

Still, if the Witnesses move the Watchtower headquarters upstate—something that is presently being considered—Derr makes it clear that he will go with them. In the end, his allegiance belongs to the church. He can take pictures anywhere.


Eleanor J. Bader

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on, and also contributes to,, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

All Issues