Christopher Ashton Serrano (1991-2016) seemed to have found his calling. A young man, in his mid-twenties, he had discovered—and pioneered–Urban Explorer/High-Risk Photography. It was a subculture of photography, incorporating both physical and mental challenges. Climbing to the top of a building or bridge was difficult enough; doing so, knowing that you might be arrested for trespass at any moment, made it even more difficult. Posting on Instagram, with 130,000 followers (BBC Newsbeat called him “an instagram star”), Christopher—as “heavy_minds”–took risks—risks that made his parents uncomfortable but that he assured them he could handle—climbing to the tops of New York City skyscrapers and bridges or down into abandoned subway stations—sometimes with permission, sometimes not—to photograph the city he loved.

His mother, fearing he might get hurt, tried to get him to stop; he told her, “I’d rather live a short life doing what I love to do than live a long life doing nothing.” She would often be up all night, waiting for him to come home from shooting photographs; when he came him, his face was lit up with excitement. It was his passion. His father told him that mortar on the roofs of the buildings that he had climbed might fail. Christopher said he was careful; he assured them he would be safe. But his parents were not so sure: “We were always afraid,” his father told me recently.

Christopher Ashton Serrano.

Christopher Ashton Serrano, in one of the last photographs of him, taken in June, 2016, just months before his death.

Christopher discovered photography on a family trip to Arizona in 2012. He had other interests–he was an avid skateboarder and snowboarder. He was, his father has said, “a demon” who “had no fear.” His younger brother, Ryan, had taken a photography course in 2012, his senior year in high school, and Christopher became interested in what Ryan had learned. Christopher started taking photos with his phone camera, but soon advanced to a single lens reflex camera with which he could use different lenses and learned how to use photo-editing software.

His mother, Susan, loves to walk around Green-Wood Cemetery. One time, four years ago, she asked Christopher to accompany her. They went into Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel and Christopher pulled out his phone to take a photograph of the chandelier above. She didn’t quite understand what he was seeing–but when she saw the result–one of the first photographs Christopher posted on Instagram–she realized he had a real eye–and a great talent–for photography:

The chandelier in Green-Wood Historic Chapel, photographed by Christopher in 2013.

The chandelier in Green-Wood Historic Chapel, photographed by Christopher in 2013. This was one of his first photographs.

Part of the art of photography is seeing things others don't.

Part of the art of photography is seeing–and shooting–what others don’t. Here, a transparent floor.

Christopher earned an associate degree from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He was attending John Jay College, studying security management. He had career plans: to become a corrections officer or a police officer. He had applied for both—and had been accepted by both. He was to have started at the Police Academy. He joked that, as a police officer, he soon would be able to get to the tops of New York’s tallest buildings legally: “Once I get my badge I can go anywhere.”

Christopher's signature set-up: his legs in the foreground, with a night scene of New York City below (in this case, high above Times Square).

Christopher’s signature set-up: a “look-down” photograph, with his legs in the foreground, sitting on the edge of a building, high above  a night scene of New York City (here Times Square). At one point, after heavy_minds had become very well known, Instagram photographers got together in New York City and set up a bench with a photo of the skyline of Manhattan on the ground below it, so that they could take photos just like heavy_minds was taking. They discussed heavy-minds; Christopher, overhearing them, said nothing. But one of his friends pointed towards him and said, “That’s heavy_minds right there.” Christopher, always humble, was embarrassed.

Another of Times Square.

Another of Times Square.

A rare self-portrait by Christopher.

A rare self-portrait by Christopher, with the Manhattan Bridge. Christopher avoided showing his face in his photographs; part of that was modesty, part to create mystery.

A view from above.

A view from above.

Another from high up.

A Manhattan view from high up.

Christopher was fascinated by bridges; here, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Christopher was fascinated by bridges; here, the Brooklyn Bridge, one of his favorite subjects, from the Brooklyn shore.

Another of the Brooklyn Bridge--but a very different feel.

Another of the Brooklyn Bridge–taken close to the spot of the prior photograph–but with a very different feel to it.

The Brooklyn Bridge--and its ramps.

The Brooklyn Bridge–and its ramps.

Atop the Williamsburg Bridge; Christopher made the long climb.

Atop the Williamsburg Bridge; Christopher made the long climb up the cables, got his photographs, and returned home, filthy but very happy.

Atop the George Washington Bridge tower. Christopher befriended a police officer who made life easy for him; who knew there is an elevator to the top?

Atop the George Washington Bridge tower on the New Jersey side. Christopher befriended a police officer who made life easy for him; who knew there is an elevator to the top of the tower?

A beautifully-composed bridge photograph.

A beautifully-composed bridge photograph.

Christopher also had a great affection for birds--here Canada geese, but also pigeons.

Christopher also had a great affection for animals–here Canada geese, but also pigeons. He loved cats and dogs; as his father has said, he was able to get close to photograph them because “animals knew he was a good guy.”

Snow was also a favorite.

Snow scenes were also a favorite.

Here Christopher took a snow scene in New York City--a subject captured by thousands in a pedestrian way--and made it something special.

Here Christopher took a winter scene in New York City–a subject captured by thousands in a pedestrian way–and made it something special, slowing the exposure so that he got the snow falling, and incorporating a police car, a fire truck, firemen, and shovelers.

This photograph, by Christopher's friend , shows Christopher atop a Manhattan building.

This photograph, by Christopher’s friend Bassem Elashrafi, shows Christopher atop a Manhattan building, holding his camera in his right hand. Christopher assured his parents that walking on the top of a building was no different from balancing on a curb.

Another subject that caught Christopher's fancy--abandoned subway stations.

Another subject that caught Christopher’s fancy:  abandoned subway stations. As his brother, Ryan, remembers, Christopher would often go out at night to take photos, then come back home at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and wake Ryan up, excited to show him his latest work. As Ryan told me, “He was an amazing brother and an amazing photographer.”

Another subway shot.

Another subway shot–the Worth Street station.

Manhattan skyline, with the World Trade Center in the distance.

Manhattan skyline and the World Trade Center in the distance.

A group photograph--Christopher and his longtime girlfriend, up above Times Square.

A group photograph–Christopher and his longtime girlfriend, Vicky, up above New York.

Christopher captured Manhattanhenge, opening his lens up to get these light effects.

Christopher captured the setting sun of Manhattanhenge, opening his lens up to get these light effects.

But, tragically, Christopher is gone now. Christopher died on October 4, 2016, already an inspiration to photographers around the world, as he was setting up a photograph. He was on the F train, between the 4th Avenue and 9th Street stops, outside the cars, trying to figure out the best vantage point for a photograph of the view as the train rises from underground and reveals Brooklyn and Manhattan in the distance. When Christopher did not come home as expected that night, and his father could not reach him on his cellphone, he called to police. He insisted that something was wrong and finally convinced the police to start a search; Christopher’s body was found on the tracks soon thereafter.

Reaction to Christopher’s death was swift and worldwide. Andrew Griswold, wrting on Fstoppers under a headline, “Train Incident Brings Tragic Death to Talented NYC Photographer and Famed Instagrammer,” wrote of Christopher: “His photos of feet dangling from rooftops and outstanding vantage points has always helped me visualize all that I believe NYC to be.” He paid tribute to Christopher as “an incredibly talented photographer.” Kate Dwyer, at TeenVogue.com, wrote:

He had a unique ability to transform ordinary places such as Central Park, the World Trade Center, and the city streets into sweeping, cinematic environments. In addition to creating these magical landscapes, he was known for scaling buildings and bridges in order to take daredevil shots. Following his death, there have been thousands of condolences posted in the comments sections of his photos. It’s clear his followers were deeply inspired by his work.” More than 60 pieces were published around the world in Christopher’s memory.

Since Christopher’s death, his family—father Herman, mother Susan, and younger brother Ryan—have dedicated themselves to keeping Christopher’s legacy alive. Christopher was focused on making photographs. Shooting them was his passion. He had no interest, short term, in printing his photographs or marketing them. He never sold a photograph. He had no gallery, no agent. He did think long-term about opening a gallery–but first he had to photograph New York: “Not many people get to see the city like I do and I just want to share it with as many people as possible.”

After his death, his family sought to rectify this. They had many of Christopher’s best photographs printed (Christopher had 6,000 of his photographs on his computer) and staged a pop-up gallery to show and sell his work. At those showings they met people, living thousands of miles away, who, through the magic of the Internet, had been inspired by Christopher’s work and now had traveled to New York City to see his photographs on display. There was the young man from Israel who had written about the person who had been his greatest inspiration: the far-off Christopher Serrano. There was the Chinese man in New York City who had reached out to Christopher and had been invited to go out and shoot with him. There were the other Urban Explorer photographers who were in awe of heavy_minds and his work—and were honored to meet this humble young man. As his father, Herman, sums up: “We’re going to keep people talking about him. Show the young man that he was and what he left for all of us to enjoy–his pictures.”

Christopher was cremated; his cremated body is in a niche at Green-Wood. His family had a very special urn made in his memory; it is a cast of his camera:

This cast of Christopher's camera contains his cremated ashes.

This cast of Christopher’s camera contains his cremated body. Ryan, his brother, says this piece was created by his family “to remember him for what he loved to do.”

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Thanks to the Serrano family, father Herman, mother Susan, and brother Ryan, for sharing their love and memories of Christopher and allowing me to tell his story. We are honored that examples of Christopher’s work will be donated by his family to The Green-Wood Historic Fund Collections.

15 thoughts on “Instagram Photographer Christopher Serrano: Gone, But Not Forgotten

  1. It is so fitting that Christopher now rests amongst some of the greatest innovators, artists, and inspirational minds that helped shape our City. It is comforting to see that he will forever be part of New York City’s rich history. His work will live on to continue to inspire generations to come.

  2. Awesome blog. Thank you for capturing the right story and doing justice to his legacy.

    Chris has been missed every single day since October. luckily his story and his photos will live on forever.

  3. I am truly excited to see that he’s being added to the history of greenwood. He is truly deserving of it I couldn’t be more happy for my friend, I love you and I miss you brother

  4. Beautiful. Well said, well deserved. He gave me a glimpse of what its truly like to live without fear. May we never forget. Rest in peace my friend.

  5. Thank you so much for adding Christopher’s story to your blog and also for leading the way for so many people to learn of Christopher and the legacy he left behind.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this about Christopher. Christopher’s story is so beautiful, thank you for sharing it and for continuing his legacy.

    The photos you shared are absolutely breathtaking. I am so happy his story and his photos will live on forever.

  7. Christopher’s work was truly amazing and it is everything he wanted to be and more. He captured views of New York no one would have ever thought to see. Once I saw some of his photos, I was hooked. Thank you Chris for the amazing photos.

  8. This was a lovely piece!!!

    From time to time I think about Christopher and how I met him. He randomly added me on fb and after our first conversation I knew he was a kind soul, but from his pictures I knew that he was met to be a photographer. I admired him so much for being so fearless. In my heart, I knew he was meant for greatness. I remember telling him that I would love to join his adventures, but sadly that never happened. Still looking at his pictures gave me a thrill and excitement to see where would he go next. There isn’t a day that I don’t think about topher and I tell myself that he is on a whole new adventure where ever his soul is. It not easy losing a good friend, but where ever he is I hope he is happy… RIP TOPHER.. I’m deeply sorry for your loss and sending my condolences to his family and friends.

  9. Christopher was a kind and talented young man, taken from all who knew and loved him way to soon.
    Thank you Christopher for your beautiful photos and innovative vision. Giving the world a unique NYC perspective.

  10. I remember when your Mom was pregnant with you we would talk for hours of the excitement of her 1st baby and what to expect. She would bring you and you and Sarah would play so well. You were such an inspiration with your wittiness and your thoughtfulness. You were respectful, loving, talented and kind. I am happy & grateful that I have had the privileged to see that in you. God has an angel at his side. RIP Christopher.

  11. My sweet cousin, you will never be forgotten, your legacy will live on through all of your hard work. Rest in peace. Love you always<3

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