In the world of photography, nothing is really what it seems. For photographer Justin Bettman, that’s the most exciting part of the art form. Bettman’s ongoing series Set in the Street plays with our perceptions of space and perspective, exploring the idea that most of the images we see in the world today are often a small part of a bigger picture.
To start, Bettman builds stylized sets in places around the world. Each set is meticulously designed to appear as another place and time from its surroundings. Bettman then creates two pictures — one tightly cropped to conceal the surrounding environment and one wide to reveal what was previously hidden — leaving viewers to consider just how much of the world is left out from what we see in the media.
Here, Justin Bettman shares a selection of his pictures from Set in the Street and discusses what goes into creating his surreal art:
I often like to create images that have a narrative behind them. It’s hard to describe where these stories come from, but I often think of them in my sleep. After waking up, I feel compelled to translate those dreams into these sets.
This project tackles the concept of how we’re often misled when we only see the smaller piece of a large picture. The truth is that many viewers would have no idea these shots were taken on the street if you didn’t see the larger image — which I believe is a metaphor for our lives.
When scouting for a location to shoot, I try to find an area with a wall that is at least 12 feet long and 8 feet wide, and a sidewalk that is at least 10 feet deep. Sometimes, I get lucky and find these walls already existing. Other times I’ve had to have them built.
I’ll usually have an idea of the type of set I’d like to build for that given location, but ultimately, what I am able to find determines the set. I also usually have a place to store furniture I’ve collected for a given location. Once I’ve gotten enough items, I try to find a theme and create a set out of what I’ve collected.
Each shoot is developed around mood boards that help me find inspiration, and since most of the pieces in the sets are quite old, I often use midcentury modern as a key style for design inspo. As for the models, casting can be different for every shoot. In London, I literally cast subjects off the street. In other places, I’ll use casting websites.
I’m always a little nervous and unsure if the shoots will actually work since I often don’t have the proper permits to build on the locations — most are built guerrilla style and I just hope for the best!
That said, it was pretty surreal to be asked by the Times Square Alliance to do a set in the middle of Times Square, so that specific shoot has a lot of meaning to me. Initially, I started the project because I couldn’t afford studio space to bring my ideas to life, so I felt validated when I was asked to it in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
For me, it’s been awesome to see how creative people have been with taking photos in the sets. If you look at the Instagram hashtag #SetintheStreet, you’ll see hundreds of people’s unique photos of my set.
One night, I was walking home from the subway and passing my living room set. A NYC police officer said to me, “Have you checked out the latest Airbnb in Bushwick, only $50 a night,” which I thought was hilarious, especially since he didn’t know I was the artist!
I’ve enjoyed going around the world and seeing how people react to the sets. I think that’s part of why I enjoy this project so much. However, since the project began in New York City, I’ll always have a special memory of the NYC sets I made.
I’d love to continue this project for many years to come and do it all around the world. Hopefully the exterior background locations will become more and more impressive as well as the general production in the sets.
I mean this in the most humble way possible, but I don’t think I realized how much other people would connect with this series. I’ve always loved this type of aesthetic, but the idea of creating a public art installation that people could interact with and get really excited about is very rewarding. This project has opened so many doors in ways I could’ve never expected, and I’m so thankful to everyone who helped make this project happen.
It’s my hope it will inspire people to make art and realize that even if you don’t have a large budget, anything is possible. I also hope viewers realize that sometimes when they may be in a conflict with someone, they might only be seeing a smaller piece of a larger picture.