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 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:
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.”
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:
◊ ◊ ◊
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.