I have always liked getting my camera into a different place, so it was no surprise to me that I loved a long ago assignment underneath New York City. I have often climbed something for a unique view, but this time, I went way, way down.
Commissioned in 1954, with construction actually beginning in 1970, the new water tunnel that now will serve New York, just coming to completion, has been the largest capital improvement project in the history of the the five boroughs. And, for the most part, nobody really knew much about it. Certainly there wasn’t a lot of fanfare on an ongoing basis. Probably understandable for a project like this, absolutely momentous in scale and importance, but one that rumbled for years in the deep.
The crews that build these tunnels are called Sandhogs. They drill deep, and dangerously, through miles of bedrock, never seeing the sun after riding huge elevators, not up, but down, to work everyday. In the dampness and the darkness, they blast, carve, pour concrete, and move massive machinery about, far below the sidewalks, where unknowing millions turn the tap everyday, and expect water to come out. The whole massive deal has simply been called, Water Tunnel No. 3, and it is designed, predictably, to relieve the pressure on Water Tunnel No.2, which has served Manhattan since 1937.
The Times just reported on the coming completion and brought me back to the nine days I spent for People Magazine with the tunnel crews, deep under ground. Given my last name, I got on well with the sandhogs, who are a predominantly Irish-American bunch. Every morning I’d go down with the morning shift, often working alone, armed with a Nikon and a couple Leicas, some B&W film, a clamp, and an ancient Norman 200B battery flash. Some days, I’d drag along a tripod. It was a wonderfully simple job. The kind of jobs where pictures are literally everywhere are like that. Move and shoot. Move and shoot. I kept repeating a story mantra I have recited in my head for many years–”entire to detail, entire to detail.” Given the scale of the enterprise down there, it would have been easy to have fallen into the trap of shooting “big” pictures all the time, and bypassing the more human details, which are really the important pieces of the picture puzzle.
I looked forward to going down there everyday, but that of course was fueled by the knowledge that my time in the underworld was finite. Being a sandhog is not easy duty. The chill of the deep is always with you, no matter how many layers you wear. Jackhammers make it impossible to hear much, even the rumbling of approaching heavy equipment. High voltage lines snake everywhere, and the muck is often ankle deep. The possibility of a serious accident, or even a death on the job, hangs palpably in the air, right along with the diesel exhaust. It is not for the faint of heart.
One of the guys described it as “building the Sistine Chapel 500 feet under the ground,” which, as you can imagine, presents difficulties. Huge pumping stations feed miles and miles of gargantuan pipes, all chewed out of solid rock, destined to slake the thirst of an ever demanding metropolis.
Annie’s Uncle Mark was a Sandhog for many years, so it’s in the family. They are a hardy bunch, urban miners who punch through rock all day and are understandably up for a laugh when they hit the sunlight again. Down in the tunnels, in the dark and the dust, it’s a serious game. Breaks were welcome, and after a couple days, they would include me as the big coffee thermos would make the rounds. No utensils, so if you took milk and sugar, you would grab two cups and use one as a mixer. With the chill of the deep settling into your bones, coffee never tasted better.
It was wonderful shooting for People at that time. The tandem of Mary Dunn and MC Marden were simply great picture editors to work for. It was an all black and white magazine then, save the cover. And those tunnels down there, with all the dust and the dark, were simply made for Tri-X.