Stephen Mallon feels at home at industrial sites. That’s why, almost a decade ago, the photographer found himself next to a set of freight train tracks in Bayonne, New Jersey, shooting an actor he’d hired to pose as a construction worker. Mallon was hoping to get a few photos that would combine portraiture with his knack for capturing industrial landscapes.
During the shoot, Mallon says he noticed a barge with a pile of what were clearly New York City subway cars stacked on it. He’d read about a program that sent retired subway cars to the bottom of the ocean, but he didn’t know much about it. “I’ve been photographing industrial landscapes my entire career,” says Mallon over coffee near his Clinton Hill studio. “When I found out they were still doing the artificial reef project, I lost my shit.”
At first, he just hoped someone would give him permission to shoot the yard where the barge was docked. But over the next few months, he got in touch with Weeks Marine, the contractor involved in the MTA’s artificial reef program. The company agreed to let Mallon tag along and watch the whole process — from when they load the trains at a 212th Street yard to the moment they toss the stripped husks of metal into the Atlantic.
The project, which stretched from 2008 through 2010, resulted in a series of photos titled “Next Stop Atlantic” that have repeatedly captured public attention. The images have been featured in the New York Times, Slate, and countless other TV networks, local publications, and photo blogs. A transit museum in Austria now counts them as part of its collection. “I didn’t know it was going to resonate like this,” Mallon says, adding that he expected the novelty to wear off after a while. “Just out of the blue [the photos] will get people’s attention again,” he says — usually without warning.
Mallon, who was born in England but has lived in Brooklyn for the past twenty years, has a few theories about why the subway car photos seem to perennially bubble back to the surface. There are the obvious answers about the public’s fascination with images depicting New York: “We’ve all held on to that pole — there’s a little sense of vertigo when you see this,” Mallon says. “There’s this violent recycling aspect of it.”
But the images also create a mental reversal. Many people assume that dumping the subway cars into the ocean is an act of government malfeasance and are surprised to learn it was EPA-approved and actually saved the transit agency money. And though the MTA has since discontinued the program, Mallon’s primary mission was never to promote or teach people about it. “[The] focus of my work is not just from a documentary standpoint — I’m not a journalist,” Mallon says. “The question is always, ‘How do I make this into an interesting image?’ ”
Nor was this the first time his photos garnered national attention. In 2009, he shot the US Airways flight that crash-landed in the Hudson. Through Weeks Marine, the same contractor that worked on the reef program, he got permission to go out on the water while workers fished out the wreckage. And, much as with his subway car photos, the images capture an unconventional industrial landscape.
Those sorts of images have “always been a fascination of mine since I was a kid,” Mallon adds. “This was just a wonderful way to be photographing something I was attracted to, and that there’s an audience for.”
Mallon is set to publish a book of his photos through Glitterati next year. But if you can’t wait, his subway photos are on long-term display at The Front Room gallery in Brooklyn. Some of his other work is part of the gallery’s “Beyond Ruin Porn” group show, which runs through February 21.