Josh Katz’s ‘On The Roof is a testament to Brooklyn communities
Across 17 interconnected rooftops in Bushwick, a neighborhood came together in the most unlikely of circumstances. Residents watched as their neighbors fell in love, children grew, and friendships were made. It was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, and photographer Josh Katz was there to capture every moment.
During the first few claustrophobic days stuck inside in March 2020, Katz, who turned 24 during the first few months of the pandemic, journeyed to find his rooftop for some air. As soon as he moved the wooden hatch, he said “This story unfolded before my eyes,” and Katz set out to go to the rooftops every day. He did this for over two months.
Katz began documenting his rooftop community on Instagram. His first post was on March 22, 2020. It was a photo of a couple, out in the sun on their roof, swinging themselves around with joy, along with other photos of people living (and social distancing) in their new pandemic world. Katz captioned this first post saying, “Watching people emerge onto the roof from their fire escapes and hatches, climbing out into the sun for the first time in days, reminds me of a submarine and its crew surfacing after a long stint underwater. Relief, relaxation, and celebration are in the air.”
In his new book, “On The Roof,” Katz documents the life of his Bushwick community, these 17 rooftops, and the respite to be found in this world above.
The project began as street photography, capturing moments behind a lens of anonymity, but then as Katz got to know his neighbors it quickly transitioned into documentary work. “This was about experiencing my community and finding friendship and socializing during a time when I think we all really needed it.” As he got more involved, Katz discovered that “What kept it going after the first few weeks of crazy excitement was just an enthusiasm for having time to spend with these new friends.”
As soon as the documentary work began, Katz made sure that everyone knew who he was, knew about this project, and he wanted his neighbors to be involved. “These were the people I knew I’d see when I was getting eggs at the grocery store in the morning,” he said, elaborating that, “It was really important for me to make sure there was a lot of respect.” He worked hard, from every day forward, to get consent from every subject photographed, making sure they knew about the project and Katz’s work.
On a regular day, it could take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours for Katz to visit all 17 rooftops. It depended on what caught his eye, or who wanted to stop and chat, especially as his neighbors slowly became his friends.
Thus, he made sure his presence was known throughout the rooftops of his block — because he wanted his neighbors to feel comfortable communicating with him. It quickly turned to his benefit. “Once people realized how extremely devoted I was to the project, […] people started serving as my eyes.”
As Katz built relationships with his neighbors, he reflected that “The photos quickly became a byproduct of this beautiful community rather than an impetus for it.”
His favorite photo (on pages 84 and 85 of the book), is of a father swinging his daughter around on the rooftop. “It was a crazy sight to see,” he said. It was a family he got the chance to watch grow and adapt to their new environment. They also served as proof for Katz’s four-phase theory on how people experience the rooftops. The four-phase theory begins with phase one, where everyone who goes to the roofs first scouts out the space, then in phase two they share the news and excitement with others, before phase three where they experiment with what they can do up there, and eventually, the entire experience becomes normalized in phase four. And the family, with the father swinging his daughter, was a “testament to what everyone is going through,” in the four-phase theory of discovering the roofs, and in finding joy in little moments.
To this day, he feels a strong connection to his community. “Bushwick has never felt smaller to me. And pretty much every time I leave the house I see someone I know, which is the dream from a community standpoint.”
“I feel really lucky to have that.”
These relationships translated into the print edition of “On The Roof,” as well. Many of Katz’s neighbors aided in the process of creating a book. One neighbor was a magazine editor who suggested that Josh hire a new designer. During the launch party for “On The Roof,” Katz invited a band who played on the roof to perform. Another neighbor helped curate the art selection and put up a gallery. “It feels really good to have these relationships continue into today.”
Katz was struck, though, by how much bigger a project and his experience is than he initially recognized. “This book is what I saw, yet what was happening extends on a much more macro level to all over the city. This is the tiniest little microcosm of that.”
He took this concept of going beyond himself and made a decision: 100% of Katz’s profits from “On The Roof” will go to Doctors Without Borders. During a time when New York City was in a health crisis, “The last thing I want to do is to profit off of COVID-19.” Bolstering his choice, Katz knew that having the profits of the book go to a very needed health organization “Would make all the subjects in the book feel better about it, it was a good way to make a difference.” He wanted every neighbor who aided in his project to feel good about the work he was doing.
Although he was extremely humble and very modest in his praise, Katz did acknowledge that the book was a huge success. The Kickstarter for the printed edition had $5000 leftover, all of which went to Doctors Without Borders. And, once the royalties for the book begin to kick in, he will have even more to donate.
As an artist and photographer, Katz claims that “On The Roof” was one of the most important bodies of work he ever made. It changed him, charging him with the energy to push further, and learn more. It was also a months-long exercise in photography with limitations. “I like to create elaborate lighting setups and take dramatic shots of whomever,” he explained of his photography in non-COVID-19 times, “But with this, you know, with this I have this crazy telephoto lens and a limited number of angles. Within the first few weeks, I knew every possible angle and every place to stand without falling off the roof.”
Though he wouldn’t make it easier on himself, even if he could. “I love the forced limitation. You make it work.” Ironically, the forced limitation of his lens nicely alludes the forced limitation of a life under quarantine.
So much of what Katz captured reflects the uncertainty, the newness, the strangeness of COVID-19, but he also captured moments of joy, of coming together, of exploration, learning, and love. He also captured a true love for the Brooklyn community he lives in.
“That was the hardest work I ever put into anything in my life,” Katz said, looking back on the whole process. “I don’t have any regrets. I think I did the best job that I could as it developed and I feel very grateful with how it all came out.”
As for what’s next? Katz is taking it day by day, and project by project. The lessons he learned and the experiences he got from his rooftop documentation have him itching to create another photo book, and, in his words, “indulge the curiosity of the human experience” with more documentary work.
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