An Interview with Photographer and Filmmaker Nathan Kensinger

Happy holidays! I hope you all are doing well and taking care of yourselves as the weather changes and the holiday obligations start to pile up. 

The latest in climate change news is of course the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Other climate communicators have already weighed in on the significance of this report, so all I’ll add here is that I, too, was appalled at how America’s national leaders handled its release. And I am as grateful as ever for the scientists, writers and artists, and other climate communicators who continue to make it their life work to bring more awareness to climate change and its devastating effects on our planet. Thank you.

Speaking of climate communicators, I am very excited about the panel on climate change and narrative that I’m moderating at the New York Society Library on December 13th. If you’re in the city, please join us! Otherwise, tune in to the live stream, which you can find on the NYSL Facebook page.

This month is an interview with photographer, filmmaker, and curator, Nathan Kensinger. You may know his work from the twice-monthly photo essay he creates for Curbed NY, wherein he explores New York City’s hidden urban landscapes, off-limits industrial structures, unnatural waterways, environmental disaster zones, and other liminal spaces. Or perhaps you’ve seen or heard about his short documentary film, Managed Retreat, that captures three communities in Staten Island that are being dismantled and returned to nature as sea-level rise becomes a more immediate threat.

Or perhaps you saw him on my “Art and Activism in the Anthropocene” panel that I moderated this past spring at the New York Society Library.

As you can see, Nathan keeps quite busy, so I was delighted that he took the time to do this interview.

Much of your work focuses on hidden and/or abandoned green spaces in urban areas. What attracts you to these places?


I feel like I am drawn to these places for a variety of reasons. It’s partially out of a desire to find some small piece of the natural world, in the middle of our crowded urban landscape. It’s also an interest in understanding how we created the ecosystems we now live in, some of which are terribly polluted. And another reason is that, as a documentarian, my work focuses on exploring overlooked places, and places that haven’t yet had their stories fully told. There are a surprising number of hidden green places in our cities, that have been almost completely forgotten, but that have such important stories.

Please tell us about your recent documentary film, Managed Retreat. What inspired it, and what do you hope audiences take away from it?


Managed Retreat is part of a series of short documentaries I am working on, looking at the uneasy relationship between humans and nature in New York City. The film examines three neighborhoods in Staten Island that are undergoing a “managed retreat” from the waterfront, because of the threats posed by rising sea levels. Basically, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the residents in these neighborhoods asked the government to buy their houses, so they could move to somewhere safer. Their homes are now being demolished and turned back into a wetlands. 

I decided to make the film because I’ve been documenting the impacts of Hurricane Sandy over the last six years, and this “managed retreat” was the most interesting response to the the storm that I’ve seen. It’s the first time that New York has decided to relocate entire communities, because of climate change. And very few people have heard of this process – people are not aware that their neighbors are tearing down their own homes, to escape from sea level rise. I’m hoping the film will give audiences a better picture of what may be in store for many other neighborhoods, in the near future.

The process of managed retreat in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. Photograph from 2015 by Nathan Kensinger.

Is climate change and/or sea-level rise something you think about beyond your artistic work?


I definitely think about climate change all the time, in my daily life. It’s hard to avoid here in New York City, where sea level rise and storms and flooding are already completely changing the landscape. Sometimes, while I’m walking around the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I find myself wondering what the city will look like in 50 years, or 500 years, or 5,000 years. What might still be here? What will be underwater? What species will have survived? I’m very interested in which artifacts will survive from our current civilization, for future archaeologists to puzzle over, like the ruins of Carnac. 

What is Chance Ecologies?


Chance Ecologies is an arts project I have been curating for the last few years, along with Catherine Grau of the Queens Museum. It invites artists to consider abandoned post-industrial landscapes in New York City, that have been taken over by other species. Polluted landfills that have become wild-growing meadows and forests, toxic rivers and canals that are also lined by hidden wetlands and bamboo groves. We’ve worked with a whole range of artists, including sculptors, filmmakers, choreographers, architects and scientists, to create a series of exhibits and public events around these forgotten environments.  

Do you think that art and/or artfully created documentaries about climate change can create greater social awareness of the issue?


I definitely think that artists and filmmakers can help highlight the challenges we are facing from climate change. I think artists can be a great conduit, for explaining and interpreting the science of global warming and sea level rise. I sometimes wonder – if you are an artist and you are not looking at climate change in your work, what are you looking at? We are in the middle of one of the biggest mass extinctions in the history of the planet, and artists, filmmakers, and journalists should all be focused on communicating that. 

What’s next for you?


I’m looking forward to sending Managed Retreat further out into the world, and to finishing up work on a couple other short films, about nature in the city. I’m also nearing completion on another project I’ve been working on for the last five years, where I’ve been photographing and writing the story of every river, creek and kill in New York City, and I’ll hopefully be wrapping that up in the coming year. 

Read more about Nathan Kensinger and his work at his website.  

(Top photo by Jason Speakman. Downloaded from Brooklyn Paper.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.comand follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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