Stephen Mallon is a photographer invested in capturing extraordinary moments in the industrial landscape and the surreal beauty of the machines and sites that populate it. But the projects Mallon documents aren’t your everyday construction sites. “Next Stop Atlantic” follows an MTA recycling program that uses retired subway cars, stripped and cleaned, to rebuild underwater reefs along the eastern seabed. “Brace for Impact: The Salvage of Flight 1549” documents the recovery of the US Airways airbus, piloted by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, that landed in the Hudson River in 2009 after a collision with a flock of geese resulted in engine failure. In “A Bridge Delivered,” one of his time-lapse projects, Mallon shows us the delivery and installation of the new Willis Avenue Bridge, crossing the Harlem River to connect Manhattan and the Bronx. Most recently, Mallon completed “Volare,” a series of images following the construction of a new roller coaster on Coney Island. We recently had an opportunity to talk to Mallon about his work, the underappreciated beauty of engineering and how photography can provoke contemplation of industry and our natural environment — and their unexpected convergences.
An exhibition of Mallon’s series “Next Stop Atlantic” will be presented at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville in June 2011, and will also be on display at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey later this summer. In spring 2012, “Brace for Impact: The Salvage of Flight 1549” will be exhibited at Webster University in St. Louis. “A Bridge Delivered” has been selected for inclusion in this summer’s Rooftop Films Summer Series here in New York City.
How do you conceive of or identify your projects? What does it mean to you to be an “industrial photographer,” as you’ve described yourself in the past?
I am attracted to a lot of different subjects in the industrial world. I just finished a project documenting the construction of a new roller coaster for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the first new coaster in Coney Island in over 50 years. A few months ago, I was in Brazil on a commission to photograph on an offshore drilling platform for a series titled “Petrobras.”
I am hoping to be in a number of recycling plants over the coming months. I move from commission to commission, along with continuing my long term project “American Reclamation,” which is a series of images about material and space reuse in the 50 states.
But I am actually getting away from identifying myself as “an industrial photographer.” I realized, after framing my work that way, that people saw me as someone who was shooting only the box on a conveyor belt.
It seems that you have a particular interest in recycling and salvage. How did that interest develop?
I have been shooting industrial landscape work for almost all of my life. I got away from it during university, but in the late ’90s I started finding the antenna and the oil container really appealing again. After a meeting with a book agent to publish a collection of my work, I realized I needed a project to focus on. Recycling was a natural fit!
Tell us about “Next Stop Atlantic.” This series documents an MTA program that recycles retired subway cars by using them to create artificial reefs — “moments of violent recycling,” as you’ve described it. How did you find out about the project?
I was out scouting a location for a portrait in New Jersey when I recognized a barge loaded with subway cars sitting in a shipyard in Bayonne. The yard was owned by maritime contractor Weeks Marine. I sent them information about my recycling project, and the MTA and Weeks let me follow the subway cars out into the Atlantic Ocean. I spent just shy of three years going out on multiple trips.
The moment the car hits the water there’s this Titanic-esque moment when the water overtakes the car as it sinks. It’s incredibly fast — from the moment it’s picked up and thrown overboard for the fishes. The change from seeing steel lying on a barge out in the Atlantic to watching water rush in as it hits the ocean is quite dramatic.
In a lot of your work, bodies of water play an important role. In your series “Flight 1549,” you document the recovery of the US Airways airbus that famously landed in the Hudson River in 2009 after a collision with a flock of geese caused its engines to fail. Are you particularly attracted to maritime industrial subject matter?
It just keeps calling my name. Similar to shooting objects placed on a white background or against the sky, water isolates the machine.
How did you get interested in creating “A Bridge Delivered,” your time-lapse video of the delivery and installation of the new Willis Avenue Bridge? Did you know immediately that you wanted to document it?
Weeks Marine has a construction division and they gave me a call last summer to see if I would want to come out to shoot it. I knew immediately that I wanted to document it!
Over 30,000 images comprise “A Bridge Delivered,” but in your still photographs the individual moments you capture are very precise. Did you think about these two projects very differently, or did your photographs suggest how best to portray the idea?
Yes, the process of telling a story in motion has been a change for me. I used to look for one or a few images to encapsulate the event. Now I am looking for clips, longer moments in time to keep the viewer engaged and the story running.
Practically speaking, how do you negotiate such immediate access to your subjects? How do you get as close as you do?
Having the existing body of work has made clients and locations much more comfortable. They see that other people have trusted and commissioned me in the past, which boosts their confidence.
How would like your photography to affect or inform the way your viewing public sees or considers the city and its infrastructure?
Some people are horrified about the artificial reef program, but I think it’s because they don’t know the details about how it is designed to help the environment. I am fortunate that I have been able to photograph these historical projects that are all tied to New York — my interest is in making unique images of historical moments. The response to these projects has been amazing and I am truly grateful.
What types of projects are you working on now?
I’m designing a remote camera that will let me shoot hi-res time-lapse footage from any location for an extended period of time — I’ll have more details soon! I am also conceptualizing my own proposal for an artificial reef. But that is going to take some time!