For years, Stanley Greenberg worked in New York's underworld, shooting abandoned and overlooked places with a 4 x 5 camera. The black-and-white photographs in Invisible City show us some of New York's most beautiful and ruined structures--like the West Side shipping piers and quarters at Ellis Island. Unlike nature photographers, Greenberg concerns himself less with "capturing" an image and more with getting access to it. He doesn't have to wait for the sun to crack a hillside, a deer to turn his muzzle toward him, or a cloud to unexpectedly shift. The places he finds have already shifted and settled into ruin, and he just needs to uncover the trapdoors, unlock the gates, or climb the towers to spotlight them.
Greenberg uses his connections as a civil servant to gain admittance to many of the infrastructure venues in New York--including the attics of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the Grand Central terminal. These transoms give the book a great sense of revelation; they disclose the private side of New York's most public spaces, nudging a viewer's craving to see the parts of the city kept from the ordinary gaze.
Just as Greenberg shoots the forgotten city, he's also documenting the one that the responsible engineers, not the glamorous architects, have built. While architects scurry above ground, designing a stage for their work, engineers run the pipes, cables, pistons, and valves below. They are the stage managers, assuring that everything is safe and functional. They give the skyline a chance to happen.
I wandered through Greenberg's photographs after reading Delirious New York, architect Rem Koolhaas' remarkable look at the above-ground city. Invisible New York is a great supplement to Delirious. Greenberg charts the intricate, utilitarian place of vaults; tunnels; water, sewer, and subway lines. Koolhaas, on the other hand, is full of irony and satisfying speculation. He pastes futuristic drawings alongside cartoons, photographs, and anecdotes. Koolhaas' New York is fixed on the surface, in the "permanence" of a built city. "There is no reason the buildings should ever be replaced. The great eerie calm of their exterior is ensured through the Great Lobotomy," he ironically writes. Greenberg's New York is remarkably quiet as well. No people roam his photographs. The city that Greenberg charts, like Koolhaas' delirious one, is a residue of gestures.
In his liner notes, Greenberg repeats that the "future is in doubt." He's referring to a number of corroded, crumbling institutions: the old Ellis Island hallways and the efflux chamber at the Ridgewood Reservoir in Queens. The neglect of the infrastructure gives the story a plot. It's a people-less story in that the residue is what people have left behind, and we can almost see the mark of the hand behind them, marred into the leftovers.
Beneath turbines, the waterlines rise. The floors of tunnels corrode to muck, and piers crumble into the rivers. Greenberg's book collects these emblems, the relics of a city growing beyond its own foundation. Underneath a cemetery for the unclaimed dead, old fallout shelters hold rusted helmets. In their crumbling arched towers, bridge cables vibrate and nearby water towers fade from monument status. The skyline swings toward the new, while underneath, it spans from the rusted, piston-driven rods and cranks to the gleaming Trump Towers.
Writer Patricia Hampl claims that old photographs--especially those with family members--eventually turn historical. We no longer mourn for the people in the pictures, but instead, sigh and comment on the objects nearby, how the old Ford or the styles of dress are remarkable for their history. Greenberg's shots invert this historical impulse. His images of Ellis Island, for example, are profoundly human because they are not populated. Paint peels in scabby chunks from the walls. The morgue's refrigeration motor remains bolted to the floor. It is the absence of people and the rotting of the place that make it haunting, and through images like these, Greenberg builds a book of photographs, certainly, but a book that constructs a narrative through residue. The images tell the story of old impulses.
In one aperture, however, a valve chamber holds huge barbells with ladders curled around them, over rounds of gear teeth. Someone has replaced part of a turbine, and the metal gleams in the underground stage lights. There's a gesture toward the new, one hint amid the wreckage.