Long known as “the city that never sleeps,” New York City can feel chaotic with its cacophony of skyscrapers, subways and noise. But within creative corners of the Big Apple, from a photo studio in Brooklyn to a design firm in Manhattan, transplants find their own groove. Meet three recent alums based in New York.
In New York City’s neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn—a 20-minute subway ride on the F train from Manhattan, across the East River—coffee shops and tattoo parlors are catty-corner to brownstones with grassy front yards.
Overflowing with leafy trees and community-like cheer, it’s a calmer and more residential side of New York that freelance photographer and alumna Heather Sten (BFA 13 Photography and Imaging) knows and loves.
On a blue-skied day, Sten sits on a grey living room couch in a second-story apartment that she shares with her boyfriend in a 1901 brownstone. A painting of a devil and a half-nude woman by Mexican artist Aureliano Lorenzo hangs above a vase of purple flowers. The couple’s balcony garden, facing the backyard, bursts with plants, including one sprouting cherry tomatoes. Blocks away, murals painted by school children stretch along a brick overpass.
“My home needs to be somewhere that's quiet and peaceful, because when you’re a photographer in New York, you're racing around all the time,” says Sten, who grew up in Riverside, California. “I love my street,” she adds. “It’s like Sesame Street. Everyone knows each other and says ‘hi’ when you get coffee in the morning.”
Since moving to NYC in 2014, a few months after graduating from ArtCenter, Sten has photographed a diverse group of celebrities, filmmakers, musicians, actors, artists and executives including Spike Lee (wrapped in an American flag), Lena Waithe, Tiffany Haddish, Amy Schumer, Stormy Daniels, Neko Case and Glenn Close for outlets such as the The New York Times, Time, Vice, Out and Google, and for fashion clients such as Steven Alan.
Her work takes her across the broad concrete landscape of the city, from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Central Park. On this particular day, she’s hunkered down in her apartment to edit photos on her laptop. Earlier that morning, she photographed playwright Theresa Rebeck at the American Airlines Theatre, a 100-year-old Neo-Renaissance-style theatre (formerly the Selwyn Theatre) just a few blocks from the neon lights of Times Square.
“I love meeting new people and photographing them, which is interesting, because I used to be so shy when I was younger,” Sten says, scratching the head of her black-and-white dog Calcifer, named after a fire demon in Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Her down-to-earth approach to photo shoots reflects a certain vulnerability. “I try, with my photos, to capture someone’s personality in their natural calm state,” says Sten, wearing a gold Buddhist necklace her mom gave her in elementary school. “I don’t like to push people. I want to get a feel for who they are and be as fluid as possible.”
Sten’s mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam and raised Sten as a single parent, wanted her to be a doctor. Taking photos since she was 14, Sten instead decided to go in a creative direction, diving into photography at ArtCenter. Inspired by instructors Mary Trunk and Jona Frank, whose work ranges from portrait photos to films, Sten created a visual diary about her grandma, who had Alzheimer's. It became her series Con Chau. An internship with fashion and advertising photography duo Juco (Julia Galdo and Cody Cloud) motivated her to pursue freelancing.
And while she first visited NYC right before September 11, 2001 as a 12-year-old, she didn’t think about moving to the city until visiting as an adult during her last term. “When I moved, it was February, and I’d never seen snow before,” Sten says. She became a commercial photographer’s assistant, and later amassed her own clients and more than 17,500 followers on Instagram.
“I went to NYC not thinking, ‘I'm going to fail,’ but, ‘Oh, let's just see what happens,’” she says. “Assisting is the key to becoming your own photographer, and observing how people work and what you like or don't like.”
Inside her cozy apartment, Sten closes her laptop and tidies up before walking over to Buttermilk Channel, a restaurant on Carroll Gardens’ nearby main drag Court Street. Across the street is Nice Tattoo (“A tattoo parlor where everyone is nice to you,” according to its tagline). Sten got her own tiny tattoo on her arm—a “weird sun” of crisscrossing lines, she says, smiling—while studying at ArtCenter.
After lunch, she walks back to her apartment and hops into her car with Calcifer for the 10-minute drive to her work studio in an industrial building by Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. She uses the space—with its tall white walls and warm natural light—to also shoot subjects. Inside, Calcifer flops onto the studio’s cream couch.
Looking out the window, Sten contemplates one of her favorite shoots in the city. It was in the summer of 2017, while photographing Chilean actress and singer Daniela Vega for Out magazine on a rooftop in Manhattan. Halfway through it started raining—the kind of thick warm rain common in NYC during summer months.
“We both started crying at one point, and were soaking wet by the time we finished,” she says. “It was so emotional, and felt so good.”