Stanley Greenberg’s photography explores hidden systems, infrastructures and technologies, both state-of-the-art and antiquated. New York City’s unseen workings, the region’s complex water systems, architecture mid-construction, physics labs, telescopes and a decommissioned dam have all been the subject of Greenberg’s careful eye. Though his projects range in location and scale, his curiosity about how things work and his enthusiasm for sharing the concealed with his audience is constant. Part urban exploration, part “Unseen Machine,” part historical document, his art offers an uncommon view of the built environment and encourages us to look at our surroundings in a new way. Greenberg has published three books: Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City; Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System; and Architecture Under Construction; and is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for the printing of Time Machines. Starting November 11, you can see Greenberg’s photographs of the Culver Viaduct on view in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Artist and Artifact: Re|Visioning Brooklyn, an exhibition of works created in response to items in the BHS archives. And keep an eye out for an exhibition of his work at Gitterman Gallery in the fall of 2011. But first, read on as Stanley Greenberg talks to us about issues of access and security, the role of the photographer in inspiring transformation, and the public’s right to know. –V.S.
When did you start photographing and why?
I started photographing when I was very young. My father was a high school art teacher and we had a darkroom in the basement bathroom. I try not to think about how bad the ventilation was down there. I was interested in all kinds of things, from politics to science. I was an art history major in college and took a couple of photo classes then, but the professor told me to find another career. In graduate school I studied public administration; I had been an intern in Congress and helped run an election campaign, so I thought I would work in government. But while I was in Syracuse, I ended up spending all of my time in a local community darkroom (Light Work). I wasn’t interested in commercial photography, so I never expected to make a living as a photographer. I took a series of jobs as an analyst and assistant to commissioners in city government and kept moving up as my bosses got promoted. I was an assistant commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs when I left in 1988 to pursue photography full-time.
How do you see the city in a unique way?
As someone who grew up here in New York, I like to think I know the city pretty well. That’s partially a factor of the time spent here, but it also has much to do with how I have spent my time here. I think the city is a huge organism, only some of it visible, and we inhabit it, change it, get changed by it. But there is so much of it that I don’t know. I have mental maps of some neighborhoods; others I still need to explore. There are New Yorkers who never leave their home neighborhood. I try to get out and see as much as I can; walking, on my bicycle, in the subway. And I am always reading about the city, present and past. I suppose I treat it more like a tourist would, always looking for new things and hidden old things. I’ve learned to look for different kinds of subtle landmarks; where are the water tunnel shafts, for example, and how they affect a particular landscape. Or how different eras are marked by manhole covers, lampposts, width of the streets, other urban artifacts. I’m a birder, so I’ve trained myself to look at details. But it’s the same with the city; you always need to be looking. I think it’s important not to take it for granted. That’s what I try to do with my pictures; convince you that it’s worth your time to look at the city, maybe in a way you hadn’t before.
Your work, across series and locations, inspires curiosity about how things work and an understanding or appreciation of the spaces and places that enable or surround those (sometimes invisible) processes. Is that inquisitiveness a motivating factor for you? How have you identified the specific projects you have pursued?
It’s true, I’ve always been interested in how things work, and there’s no specific way that I find my projects. Some come from reading, others are extensions of previous projects — you could probably make a diagram of how they are all connected to each other.
Invisible New York was my first long project. I had a studio near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and wanted to get inside. I got permission to photograph there and quickly realized that there were hidden places like it all over the city. Some were easier to get into than others, but I knew something about the bureaucracy, having worked in city government, so I just kept knocking on doors. I got inside almost every place I wanted to see.
Waterworks was an extension of Invisible New York, which included some water system pictures, but the system is so large and comprises such a variety of sites that I felt it deserved its own book. I had worked in the archives of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), organizing the drawing and photograph collection, so I had a pretty good idea of what there was to see. It took a few years, but eventually I was given almost complete access. I finished photographing in spring 2001, so my timing was excellent. With increased security concerns after 9/11, the DEP tried to stop me from publishing the book, but backed down when they realized that there wasn’t anything they could do.
Architecture Under Construction came out of a commission by Steven Holl to photograph Simmons Hall at MIT, then under construction. I have always been interested in construction sites, but I hadn’t thought of developing my curiosity into a larger project until I went to Cambridge. With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, I was able to travel around the country to the buildings I wanted to photograph. I think of these photographs as interpretations of the construction site as much as they are photographs of the architecture. There are so many players involved, from the architect as chief form-giver, to the engineers who determine more of the internal structure, to the construction workers who create the actual construction site. At first, I was very careful in my selections of what and when to shoot, but as the project progressed I learned that there would be something interesting to photograph no matter when I went.
Over the past two decades, since you began shooting for Invisible New York, attitudes and policies surrounding access and security have changed dramatically, and some believe that these structures and systems should be kept entirely concealed for safety’s sake. How have you experienced that shift and how has it affected your recent projects?
Fortunately, my recent projects have been less security-conscious. In fact, the physicists and labs have been extremely open and welcoming. The labs I photographed conduct basic research, for the most part, so while there are certainly ways to get hurt accidentally, there are few “national security” issues. I photographed a couple of federal government buildings for Architecture Under Construction, so I had to jump through a few more hoops. The Elwha Dam, which I’m currently photographing, is in a national park, so it’s pretty accessible, though I want to get access to the interiors of the dam and power plant.
I’m saddened that so many of the places I photographed for the first two books have been removed from the public’s eye. I still think that when there’s more public access, places are safer, for a number of reasons. Neighborhoods, for example, are always safer when more people are outside and active. You can’t possibly police all sensitive locations, and you have to have the public take ownership of its property seriously. I haven’t trespassed (much) to get pictures, since my equipment doesn’t allow for it — and in most of my projects, I haven’t needed to. But I support the idea that sometimes the public’s right to know trumps rules of access.
For your next book and exhibition, Time Machines, you visited high energy physics labs and massive telescopes being developed to study the dark matter of our universe. Though I’d imagine that the mechanisms themselves offer parallels to large-scale infrastructure, the subjects of this series are a departure from the systems and structures that directly affect (mostly) urban life and landscape in your other work. Were you interested in the instruments themselves, or did you want to engage with the physics, the experiments, the astronomy?
As I neared the end of the Architecture Under Construction project I started reading more and more about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). During my research, I came across great experiments all over the world, some of them in extremely obscure places. I pitched the idea of the Time Machines series to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which ultimately gave me a book grant that allowed me to travel all over the world to photograph the sites. I went to Antarctica to photograph ICECUBE and the South Pole Telescope with the help of the National Science Foundation. The telescopes are something of an outgrowth of the physics project. The fields are very closely related now. While experiments like the Large Hadron Collider attempt to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang, the telescopes can look back towards what the universe looked like when it was very young.
Some of the spaces in the physics labs resemble New York City’s new water tunnel, and others resemble construction sites. But I was also very interested in the science. We pay too little attention to science in this country (as in the debate about global warming, for example) and I wanted to be “a pointer” (as John Szarkowski used to describe some photographers.) You can also look at it in another way; if the first few books are about how cities and buildings work, this is about how the universe works.
There are always several layers to the photographs. I want them to be visually interesting, but they often require additional explanation for you to get the whole picture (sorry).
Thomas H. Garver, in his essay in Invisible New York, writes of your subject matter: “Ruins should be a vehicle for contemplation of the longevity and achievements of human society. How can it be that the ruins of our age, these massive and modern constructions, are suddenly reduced to nothing more than junk?” The potential of re-purposed urban infrastructure is today, 12 years after Garver wrote that essay, a familiar topic, with the High Line as the most noticeable example. Have you witnessed that trend in your work? How do you think creating a visual record of infrastructure factors into our ability to imagine its improvement or transformation?
What surprises me every time I look at Invisible New York is how much has changed in twenty years. Some places are gone, others have been transformed into parks, or cleaned up, or destroyed. I photographed Fresh Kills landfill for the book (though the pictures were not included) and then again as a commission just before the design competition started. Some places are transformed while using their history in an interesting (and often more subtle) way. Others become simulacra of what was there before, and are much weaker because of it.
As for the way a visual record might help people imagine transformation, I think all photography is interpretation to some degree. Once you make a picture it takes on a life of its own, people call it whatever they want, and it’s not just yours anymore. I don’t think of my pictures as strict documentation, and I’m not under any illusions that photographs can be substitutes for a real place, but they can serve a historical purpose. But I don’t want to be held to a standard of documentation — I don’t alter pictures with Photoshop or anything like that. In fact, I’m pretty scrupulous about not moving anything (like the plastic trash bags in some of the water system pictures). I’m not averse to the word “documentary,” but it has to be clear that these are my pictures, and I take responsibility for what’s in them.
You are working on a series about the Elwha Dam, which has been decommissioned and is slated to begin removal in 2012. Are you photographing the dam pre-deconstruction, or do you plan to document the entire three-year process?
The beginning of the dam removal has actually been moved up to start in 2011, and some other structures have already been built, including a water treatment plant and a fish hatchery. The river and its watershed will take several decades to return to something like it was 100 years ago, but the project will probably last just a few years. This will be a very different type of project for me, since I don’t usually photograph the same place over time. I also haven’t photographed much in nature, except for parts of the water system. But I spend a lot of time in natural areas, and I’ve always been very comfortable out in the woods.
I’m also photographing in color for the first time. I’ve always worked in black and white because I thought it made you concentrate on the forms in the pictures. I think the Dam project is more about environmental change, and while there is definitely color there, much of it is green, so the shift is not that drastic. I don’t think I will ever stop shooting in black and white though.
How much research do you do before visiting a site or starting on a new project?
I think I’m always doing research. The actual photography is a small fraction of the time I spend on each project. I don’t have any assistants or interns, so I do everything myself. I enjoy most of that, though it’s great to have someone help carry my equipment — I’ve enlisted some great physicists for that job. I spend a lot of time in the library, on the web, watching films, whatever I need to do to learn everything I can about a potential subject. I think that this knowledge affects how I look at the sites once I finally get to them. It also helps a great deal when I meet the engineers, physicists, and whoever else takes me around the sites. Once they see that I’m there because I’m really excited about what they do, they tend to open up more about what there is to see, and what I might miss without their suggestions. Some of the subjects I’ve photographed I have some background in to begin with, and others I’ve had to start at the beginning.
What’s next for you?
I’ll let you know when I figure that out.