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Discovering New York's Hidden Underworld: "Waterworks" in the Lobby Gallery

New York's water system is fairly overwhelming: each day, it provides over nine million people with nearly 1.3 billion gallons of water. The photographer Stanley Greenberg has documented the paths water takes throughout the metropolis. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Greenberg's excursions, which also shed light on the big city's collective memories, longings, and fears.

Spillway, Pepacton Reservoir & Watering Facility, Tunnel No.2,
New York, Gelatin Silver Print, 1997
©Stanley Greenberg

Sometimes only one step off the trodden path suffices to sharpen our perception for things which we otherwise take a mere passing notice of. In this vein, curator Liz Christensen's first visit to Stanley Greenberg's studio began with an unexpected journey of discovery – for the simple reason that she took a wrong turn after getting off the elevator: "As I searched through the maze of this giant commercial building in DUMBO, I wandered by a beehive of sign printers, machinists and the like, a variety of workshops with radios blaring rap and news in foreign tongues. I eventually found my way back to Stanley's door and his part of this universe, but afterwards was struck by the appropriateness of the experience. My sideline through the building echoed something about Stanley's approach to his work, one that has to do with his fascination with structures hidden within something else, structures that are an integral part of how the everyday world works."

Stilling Basin, Neversink Reservoir
New York, Gelatin Print 1999
©Stanley Greenberg

The gates to New York's underworld are located behind the brick facades of pumping stations, in the tunnel entrances of large construction sites, or beneath the reflective surfaces of water reservoirs in the nearby countryside: while most artist photographers seek to capture people, buildings, or well-known architectural landmarks in order to document life in the big city, Stanley Greenberg's eye is directed to more remote motifs.

Just as Virgil guided Dante through the realm of the dead, Greenberg takes the viewer by the hand and leads him through a kind of urban land of shadows – to places in his home city that either lie hidden deep beneath the ground or escape our gaze because we have no relationship to them. These are "non-locations" whose architectural attributes go unnoticed and which fulfill their function in places inaccessible to the public: power plants, underground tunnels, machine halls, dams, ditches, cable shafts, gas works. As integral components of the municipal infrastructure, they belong to a gigantic system that permeates the metropolis like a web of arteries and provides it with the energy to survive.

City Tunnel No. 3
New York, Gelatin Silver Print, 1998
©Stanley Greenberg

Following Invisible New York – The Hidden Infrastructure of the City (1998), Greenberg's photo book Waterworks: A Photographic Journey Through New York's Hidden Water Systems has recently been published. The works collected in this new volume can currently be seen in the exhibition of the same name at Deutsche Bank Lobby Gallery in New York. As this year's recipient of the Architecture and Environmental Structures Fellowship, jointly awarded by the New York Foundation of the Arts and Deutsche Bank, the artist is introducing a body of work that focuses on New York's drinking water system.
On the surface, the hidden world Greenberg portrays in his highly detailed black and white photographs offers an objective inventory of urban architecture. At the same time, however, it invites the viewer on a journey through the big-city myths and legends born throughout the course of technological development.
Indeed, New York's water system is fairly overwhelming: each day, it provides over nine million people with nearly 1.3 billion gallons of water. Since 1830, its aqueducts, retaining basins, pipes, and pumping stations have been constantly expanded, while the latest tunnel construction, scheduled for completion in 2020, constitutes the largest municipal building project worldwide.
While Greenberg follows the paths the water takes from the dams and lakes in the open countryside to the 800 foot-deep tunnels lying beneath the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, the urban water worlds he portrays appear in a strangely remote light. Empty and abandoned, they offer an odd testimony both to progress and defeat, to current changes and the forgotten hopes of past generations.

Croton Dam
New York, Gelatin Silver Print, 1999
© Stanley Greenberg

The structures documented in Greenberg's Waterworks were built during a period of time spanning well over a century. Despite this, the contemporary examples bear astonishing resemblance to their older counterparts left to deteriorate. Even while formal parallels to O. Winston Link's photographs (more here) of the last American steam railroad or the cool architectural photographs of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher are evident, Greenberg has developed his own subtle aesthetic.

In spite of his camera's distanced precision, subterranean New York also recalls the film scenario of a dark, Romantic Gotham City in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1993), in which the abandoned sewer system is populated by the creatures of the vengeful "Penguin." It is perhaps no accident that the arched dome of the Croton Dam, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, resembles the interior of a dusky cathedral, or that the monumental steel girders of the City Tunnel N. 3, which will remain under construction for decades to come, are reminiscent of the interior of an archaic technological structure that could come out of a fantasy film.

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