To Jose Gaytan, Gowanus is more than just another New York neighborhood. “It’s my muse.”
By day, Gaytan is a product manager for a camera store in Manhattan. Otherwise, he’s out photographing the city. He began documenting the entire city in 1979, but didn’t visit Gowanus until he moved to Park Slope in 2001. That’s when he started walking his dogs by the banks of the canal. “I just liked the solitude and my dogs loved it,” he said, “because there’s all kinds of vermin down there.”
He started researching the area’s history. “It was mainly a rural area, mainly used a sewage dump for old New York,” he said. But it was the neighborhood’s vast expanse of land and water that kept drawing him back. “I’ve always been a fan of rivers.”
Gaytan repeated his walk through Gowanus almost every day for six years. “I’ve always been a long walker — I was a marathon runner in the 80s — so I used to run all over the city. And I brought my camera, backpack, and three lenses.”
He collected thousands of pictures along the way. “Each time I’d see something different. The light was quite amazing.”
Gaytan isn’t the only artist in New York City who finds inspiration in and around the Gowanus Canal. Nathan Kensinger is a Gowanus-based photographer who documents the abandoned buildings along Brooklyn’s waterfront. Francis Sills, a painter, has based several of his landscape works in the neighborhood. And Proteus Gowanus is a self-described “interdisciplinary gallery and reading room” in Gowanus that oftentimes presents exhibits inspired by the environment surrounding it. The gallery includes the Hall of the Gowanus, a mini-museum and gallery of art, artifacts, documents, and books about the neighborhood and the canal itself.
For Gaytan, his daily walks paid off last July when the Brooklyn Public Library housed an exhibit of his photographs called “Brooklyn in Transition: A Photographic Essay of the Gowanus.” The New York Times noticed his work there and published an article comparing his portraits of the polluted water to Renoir’s barges on the Seine.
Still, Gaytan admits that the inspiration the area provides isn’t necessarily traditional kind.
“I think of it as a lady who’s been raped because it’s such a beautiful piece of water. I just felt that it was kind of a little girl who was abandoned and people just abuse it,” he said.
In other words, it’s not quite Renoir’s Seine. “It’s pretty disgusting if you think about it,” Gaytan said.