Through A Queer Lens: A Conversation With New Orleans Photographer Chris Berntsen

A photo by photographer Chris Berntsen.
Chris Berntsen, ‘Todd in the afternoon light,’ Rockaway, New York, 2017.

By Josh Watkins

New Orleans has always been an epicenter for all things queer, eccentric, and avant-garde. From Mardi Gras to NOLA Pride to Southern Decadence, queerness thrives on the centuries-old streets of the Big Easy. That magic is what keeps New Orleans transplant and photographer Chris Berntsen rooted in the city. With each snapshot, Berntsen views New Orleans and its residents literally and figuratively through a queer lens, discovering new connections along the way.

Josh Watkins: Tell me about your experience growing up. How did you come out?

Chris Berntsen: I grew up in New York, in a commuter town outside of the city. I would take the train into the city to skateboard, go to punk shows, and hang out with the friends I had made through those two communities. I ran a skateboard company named Riot Skateboards from age 16 to 23 and it was my life. But I ended the company to focus on making art. I didn’t come out until after college. Actually, I didn’t really “come out”—it all just happened. It flowed into all facets of my life over time. Even skateboarding now has gay pro skateboarders. It’s been such an inspiring thing to see queerness spill over into skateboarding and be embraced by many.

How did you get into photography?

I started taking photographs of friends skateboarding and making skateboarding videos and stills.

A photo by photographer Chris Berntsen.

Chris Berntsen, ‘May after Swimming,’ Durham, 2016.

How would you describe your work and your identity as a photographer?

I would describe both my art and myself as being in the middle of a growth period. Right now, I mostly exhibit intimate portraiture. I photograph friends, lovers, and strangers in an intimate, connected approach—I want viewers to connect with the people in the images without reducing the complexity of our experiences, differences, and identities. I also work with the projected image, time-based work, and installation. This work aims to be immersive and to create dialogues that I’ve felt my portraiture does not accomplish. Lately, these creations have been about history, time, and collective memory.

What does being a queer photographer mean to you?

Photography is an empty vessel for ideas and queerness is an excuse to keep searching and questioning. So for me, perhaps it’s that queer photography is the intention for creating something visual amidst that never-ending search.

What is it about New Orleans that keeps you there?

I’ve done a bit of traveling and have lived in different places, but I keep coming back to New Orleans. There’s sunlight, there are sunsets, there’s temporary autonomy, and there are people who have the time to share it with you. New Orleans has a flamboyant attitude that I love. There’s an attitude of temporality and desire to create and bring people together in New Orleans that draws me in. I recently collaborated with visual artist and musician Ruth Ex on a project—just one example of how I see queers sharing and exchanging ideas in New Orleans. Local music projects like Special Interest, Rim Job, Patsy, Psychic Hotline, Oblivia, and Softie (to name a few), are queer-friendly-inspirations I draw energy from.

A photo by photographer Chris Berntsen.

Chris Berntsen, ‘Sam in the petrochemical Landscape,’ Aribi, 2017.

What are you working on now?

As I’m writing this, I am looking at experimentation with combining projected images and portraiture. I am interested in making a work that explores the idea of time. It’s a loaded idea with many different avenues to pursue, but mine will take the form of photographs, light-based works, projection, and text. I’m also working with appropriated video for some other things. I am working on a short experimental film with a partner/poet that exposes the fragile experiences of desire and appreciation between two lovers.

What are your goals as a photographer?

Photography is a means to get closer to myself and others. It’s a self-centered creative act that I hope gives small gifts to the individuals in the images and to those who see them. Dancer Martha Graham said it better than I ever could: “Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. No satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”.

Discover more of Berntsen’s work at chrisberntsen.com

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