This Photographer Explores New York City's Subway Tunnels in the Name of Art
Since childhood, Tyler Jordan has always been into trains. He was fascinated by his mother’s stories about long-forgotten subway stations, and would press his face against subway windows to catch a glimpse of a construction project, or an abandoned track before it was swallowed into darkness. In exchange for good grades, his mother always promised him an extra subway ride, or a new map of the system's underground network. So when Jordan started experimenting with photography a few years ago, the subways were a natural subject.
“People of different walks of life are basically all going on this steel-iron machine,” says the 30-year-old Jordan, who grew up and lives in Bed-Stuy. “It’s a New York City staple. It’s history.” He started out shooting abandoned platforms and vintage cars at the transit museum. But those were photos anyone could take, and lots of professionals had covered the major subway landmarks. So Jordan figured he’d go where most professionals wouldn’t: into the bowels of the system. “I wanted to take pictures of things that nobody else at the time was doing,” Jordan explains.
His increasingly adventurous shoots happened to coincide with Hurricane Sandy, which despite being one of the most destructive events in the subway’s history, he recalls experiencing in Brooklyn as a fairly typical thunderstorm. “But I started seeing these pictures people were taking in Coney Island [and] Far Rockaway. At one point, I saw a station that was completely up to the platform full of water.” But underground and out of view, he says, “There was no one really showing what the damage was.” Jordan made it his mission to document as much of the Manhattan Sandy reconstruction as he could. And for the first time, he’s publicly showing off some of those photos, a selection of which has recently been added to the Ward-Nasse Gallery in SoHo.
The photos capture both the extent of the damage and the subway’s resilience. In some places, the pictures show the century-old materials that were used in the system’s original construction. (Jordan says he adjusts some of the lighting and brightness of the photos, but does not otherwise manipulate them in the editing process.)
He’s also the first to acknowledge that his work isn’t exactly MTA-approved. To capture the rehabilitation of the severely damaged Montague tunnel – which carries the R train under the East River and was shut down for more that a year after Sandy – Jordan slipped in at the Court Street station in Brooklyn and walked along the tracks into Manhattan. He wore clothing that made him look like a construction worker to avoid arousing suspicion. The first time he tried it, he didn’t even bother taking any photos. “There are some days I go down there and don’t shoot anything because it’s too risky – it might not be worth it,” Jordan says. “But it gives me time to explore.” Most of his photos are shot at night; there are fewer people who might spot him then, and he also has to tend to his day jobs, which include picking up freelance photo work and giving photography lessons. He says he’s never been caught by the police or MTA.
And while he might seem cavalier about the subway’s inherent dangers, that wasn’t always the case. He didn't venture down to the tracks until about five years ago, when in the middle of the night he worked up the courage to walk through a small, stretch of tunnel, about 100 feet long, near the Franklin Avenue shuttle at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. He was excited to explore, but as soon as he stepped off the platform, he froze. There were no trains bearing down on him and the station was deserted, but he was convinced he was in danger. "The doubts just came up out of my stomach," he says. He thought to himself, "If I step on this track, I’m going to die. How can I be so stupid?”
He spent the walk home psyching himself back up, and a couple months later he was at it again — this time with a photographer friend who narrowly escaped a train in a Crown Heights tunnel on the 3 line. Jordan noticed a construction train that was moving the wrong way down the track toward his friend, “I’m yelling to him, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and he’s not hearing me. The train whizzed by him, clipped his camera and actually broke his lens,” Jordan says. “Had it been a couple inches more, it would’ve taken his neck off.”
So why continue to photograph the subways given the obvious risks? Part of the answer, Jordan acknowledges, is the thrill of being somewhere dangerous and forbidden. But he’s also taken some measures to stay out of harm’s way. To avoid being struck by oncoming trains, he sticks to small walkways next to the tracks. And on his fifty-or-so trips underground, he often brings a friend as a lookout. “There are dangers like the third rail, the mole people,” says one of his frequent lookouts, who declined to give his name. “You have to have eyes everywhere.” Jordan and a collaborator have started an organization called Creating A New View Around Society (CANVAS for short), which focuses on art that explores “the unseen.”
And while Jordan says he’s going to take a break from exploring the tunnels to take care of his elderly mother, you can tell the hiatus might not be a permanent one. “You can take a picture of the empire state building fifty million ways,” Jordan says. “Someone’s going to do [that] better. I’d rather be a photographer that is known for something that’s never going to be shown again.”
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