All prints at 12"x18" and larger are digital C-prints, and are printed as editions of 20 at each size unless otherwise noted.
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New York City Bridges:
As soon as I came to New York I was fascinated with the city’s bridges. They are the clearest expression of the city’s layered growth. The seeds of the city’s growth were in the original topography of the region: the verdant islands and the bays and estuarial waterways that surround them. As the city grew, however, it transformed the archipelago of disparate islands into a single urban center, and it connected itself to the mainland so effectively that it became the country’s largest nexus for transshipment of goods between inland America and the rest of the world. A defining moment of this transformation was the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, connecting what were then the largest and the third-largest cities in the US. The process however had actually started two centuries earlier with the Kingsbridge, Manhattan Island’s first connection to the mainland, and the same process for nearly another century with a succession of world-record suspension and lift bridges.
From the tops of the bridges, it’s easy to see the extent of the obstacles that they overcome, and to appreciate both the hubris and the glory of the city that built them. With the building of its bridges, the city has changed its environment in fundamental ways. It is no longer merely an archipelago in an estuary; instead, New York City is a single thing, with its disparate islands united by the “wedding bands” of its bridge spans.
In 2007, I completed my project of climbing to the top of every bridge around Manhattan. I think that these structures are both beautiful in themselves, and that they also provide some of the most beautiful view of the rest of New York. It is this beauty that I try to show in my pictures.
Underground Rivers & Sewers
The early growth of almost all cities has revolved around water and rivers. These include both major watercourses used for transportation, like the Thames in London or the Hudson and East Rivers in New York, as well as a multitude of smaller waterways that provided fresh water for drinking, water-power for mills and industry, and irrigation for farms. In an estuarial region like New York City, such small streams were particularly important, as the saline water of the estuary (which includes the Hudson and East Rivers) is undrinkable. Such waterways were major elements of the landscape and topography in all cities, but after the 18th century and the industrial revolution they often disappeared as cities rapidly expanded and as water-power gave way to steam and then electricity.
Although the surface topography of cities like New York or London today reveals very little of the old natural landscape, there are still remnants of these earlier urban watercourses existing underground. Flowing water, whether from underground springs or from precipitation and drainage, cannot be made to disappear; it can only be re-routed. As streams became polluted, they often turned into nothing more than open sewers. Over time, these were seen as nothing more than obstacles to urban growth, and they were covered over or pushed underground. In cities like London and New York, these culverted streams became the core of the earliest sewer systems during the 19th century.
I first began to photograph some of the sewers and drains underneath cities because I was fascinated with the structures themselves, which are fascinating and impressive though always hidden from sight. Over time however I began to realize that the water flowing through these tunnels also formed a direct link with the pre-urban topography, the earliest stage of urban history. The history of many urban waterways is also the history of the city itself—the Tyburn or Fleet Rivers in London; the Sunswick or Wallabout Creek in New York, or the old Collect Pond drainage along the route of Canal Street in New York—each of these waterways played many roles in the history of their cities, and each of them continues to flow today underground beneath the city streets.
In exploring and photographing these streams and sewers, as well as completely man-made underground waterways like old aqueducts, I’m also exploring that connection with the city’s history. The unceasing flow of the water is a thread of continuity, though the underground tunnels through which it flows also demonstrates vast changes that the city has imposed on its landscape.
Thriving cities build over their pasts, constantly adding new layers of time and meaning as the physical structures of the city grow and change. I photograph the urban built environment from unusual perspectives in order to bridge these layers, to connect the past to the present, and to celebrate the complexity and multi-dimensional history of the world’s great cities.
The first focus of my work was the marginal areas and abandoned sites that have been left behind as cities grow in New York and other cities. These include abandoned factories and hospitals, old military facilities, empty subway stations, obsolete urban infrastructure, and other abandoned structures. Like time capsules, these ruins are pieces of the past that have fallen into the present, and they provide a direct connection to certain eras of the city’s history.
I also find unusual vantage points both above the city streets, on structures or tall buildings, as well as in the many layers of the urban underground. In each case these are unusual perspectives, outside of any normal experience of the city.
I think that the history of a city is often best understood when seen from these forgotten sites and hard-to-get-to vantage points. Some of the places I go are abandoned and some are active parts of urban infrastructure, but in all of them there is an unmediated experience of the urban environment, an experience that gives me both a specific and unique link to the city’s history, and an understanding of that history’s relationship with the present.
My fascination with New York’s underground began when I heard of “mole people,” homeless people who lived in tunnels and built their homes in these underground spaces. Over time I became familiar with many of the tunnels in the city. Though there are many underground spaces in New York, very few are accessible and large enough to provide shelter; however, some do exist in particular a series of old train tunnels provides shelter from the wind and rain under Manhattan’s west side.
A fairly large community existed in this area in the 1980s and early 1990s, though its residents were expelled and the structures inside the tunnel razed as Amtrak purchased the track rights to run its trains from Penn Station. This was concurrent with efforts by the Giuliani administration to remove homeless and transients from any established tent cities or squatter communities. A few of the more hidden people remained, however—the oldest residents that remain have been there nearly two decades—and in the intervening years other shorter-term residents have also come to call these tunnels home.
I’ve worked with documentary filmmakers or reporters who try to see in the tunnel-dwellers a metaphor for the social stratification in New York, as these people quite literally live underground beneath the “respectable” city, and in some cases even directly below condos and apartment buildings where much richer people live in a luxury that seems worlds apart. I don’t see this metaphor as an accurate description, however. Documentarians who come with this idea as a pre-determined paradigm always seek to interpret lives lived underground as particularly miserable, oppressed, or pathetic. This does a great disservice to the people who are described this way. What is more accurate is that these people, just like any others, are real and complex individuals living in a difficult environment. Some have made relatively comfortable homes for themselves; some suffer from problems and personal difficulties; all have their own stories and, in their own ways, try to live the best life they can.
In photographing and interviewing these “mole people, there are two things in particular that I seek to show. The first is the incredible, constant ingenuity that people have in building homes and lives in all parts of the urban environment—the harsh environment of tunnels makes this all the more apparent. The second is that their very existence, and the fact that they can live out their lives in these hidden, unknown niches, hints at how much there really is in this city—especially underground—that’s beyond the quotidian city we all know and see.