When you board a subway car deep below the surface of New York City, the first thing that springs to mind may not be “luxury accommodations.” But, if you happened to board that train deep beneath the surface of the ocean—and you also happen to be a sea bass, a blue fish, or one in a colony of mussels—things may look very different, indeed.
As it turns out, old subway cars—stripped of windows, interiors, wheels, and doors—make great reef building material: they’re heavy enough to stay put on the ocean floor, roomy enough to accommodate a wide range of fish, predators, and coral, and durable enough to last for decades.
Between 2001 and 2010, the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority sent more than 2,500 retired cars (many from the famous Redbird fleet) to coastal states from New Jersey to Georgia as part of an official artificial reef-building program. According to MTA Assistant Chief Operations Officer Michael Zacchea, the reef projects “presented the most economical and most environmentally-friendly reuse” of the cars.
Once underwater, the structures quickly become “luxury condominiums” for fish, ocean predators, oysters, mussels, and even coral. In Delaware, officials have noted a a 400-fold increase in the amount of marine life per square foot.
Sadly, the MTA’s participation in this program ended in 2010. Newer subway fleets require “a more traditional abate-and-scrap disposal,” said Zacchea, because the cars contain a combination of plastic, fiberglass and asbestos not suitable for ocean-disposal.
But luckily, the subway-to-reef process has been documented! New York City-based industrial photographer Steven Mallon spent three years photographing the project for a collection he calls Next Stop Atlantic. Read on for a short Q&A with Mallon—and be sure to scroll to the end for his striking photos. You can also see more of Mallon’s work at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries, Feb. 6–March 15, 2015.
Next Stop Atlantic: Interview with Stephen Mallon
NYER: How did Next Stop Atlantic come about?
Stephen Mallon: I was approached by a an agent that was interested in doing a book with me so I wanted to find a relevant theme that tied into what I was already shooting. My wife and I had been traveling around (we used to call it “picture-hunting”) looking for interesting industrial landscapes to photograph for a couple of years and realized that focusing on the re-use of space and material was a smooth transition.
NYER: What were the logistics of the shoot like? How did you take these amazing photographs?
SM: The MTA preps the cars for over a month, removing windows, seats, heating and cooling systems, and more. They are then loaded onto a barge, which is towed from NJ to the artificial reef sights along the east coast. I would go out with the crew of the excavator on a separate boat and meet up with the barge in the ocean. The guys would climb up onto the barge and we would back off and wait for them. At that point I was able to position myself to where I wanted to shoot from.
NYER: Next Stop Atlantic takes place over the course of three years—what was happening during that time?
SM: I started shooting it in 2008. In 2009 the project got delayed by another project—The Salvage of flight 1549. That shoot was only over two weeks but the following interviews and exhibitions took over a year of my life! In 2010 I was able to get back to Next Stop Atlantic.
NYER: What was the most challenging thing about the project? The most surprising?
SM: Finding new and interesting angels for what was pretty much the same thing over and over again was probably the biggest challenge. The one thing that surprised me is that I am vulnerable to sea sickness if I try to look at my photos on a boat!
NYER: Any chance you’re going to go back and photograph these underwater, once they’ve taken on their new life as reefs?
SM: Nope, not yet! I would love to get down there, I just need to get my “delusion of grandeur” lighting package together and head down.
NYER: What distinguishes this series from your other work?
SM: This body of work resonates with a broad range of people. New Yorkers to New York fans to trainspotters to museum curators. Its been five years since the original solo show of the work and it continues to be recognized as a powerful project.
NYER: What are some of your favorite places in New York to photograph?
SM: Places I have to get special permission from. On top of the Manhattan bridge is good, barges are also handy.
NYER: What’s next for you?
SM: American Reclamation Volume 4 has started with the conversion of the Fresh Kills landfill into a city park.
All images courtesy of Stephen Mallon and Front Room Gallery. One of the images from the collection will be featured along with other work by Mallon in the solo exhibition “Patterns of Interest” at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries from Feb. 6 to March 15 in New York City.