North Brother Island
North Brother Island is among the most unexpected of places: an uninhabited island of ruins in New York City that hardly anyone knows; a secret existing in plain sight. It is both part of the city and a world apart from it. Its twenty acres sit low in the East River, just north of Hell Gate, with a dozen buildings in various states of decay. As there is no public access, it’s most easily seen as you lift off the tarmac at LaGuardia or as you drive up the New England freeway through the Bronx.
North Brother Island came into prominence in the late 19th century, when public health issues of an exploding population regularly made headlines. Like other islands in the harbor, it was perfectly suited as a buffer against contagions, and from the 1870s through the 1930s it was used primarily as a quarantine hospital (the infamous Typhoid Mary was confined there). After WWII it provided a temporary home for veterans, and from the 1950s it was used as a juvenile drug treatment center until its closure in 1963. Over the years, new uses have been proposed for the island, but by and large it has been forgotten. Thanks to a threatened species of shorebird, the black-crowned night heron, North Brother has been designated as conservation land, to protect nesting grounds for the herons, which have unwittingly helped to preserve the island’s forgotten fragments of New York’s history.
Since 2008, with permission from the NYC Parks Department, I have been one of a few photographers allowed on the island, and my photographs comprise a comprehensive record of the buildings and its evolving landscape over many seasons. North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place In New York City was published by Empire Editions/Fordham University Press in 2014, with an introduction by author Robert Sullivan and history by Randall Mason.
Making Steinway: An American Workplace
The kind of manufacturing and craftsmanship that happens at One Steinway Place in Astoria, New York, where people transform raw, often messy materials into some of the finest musical instruments in the world, has nearly vanished from the American workplace. This concerns me deeply, not only because I come from a musical family in which such craftsmanship was revered, but because I live in a time when fewer and fewer people make their own music.
I first toured the Steinway factory in 2002, while still working as an architect, and for many years I kept thinking about what I had seen, given my interest in assembly and appreciation of the built form. After my father and grandmother passed away—both were pianists—my memories of the factory took on a more profound, spiritual importance and I felt an obligation to return to take pictures of the instrument so deeply connected to my family.
The piano is something we all know and love as a whole; its deceptively simple, iconic form is instantly recognizable. But my photographs look in a different direction: a deconstruction of the piano’s unseen constituent parts and a glimpse into the skilled labor required to make them. While my architectural training helped me to understand how the piano works on a technical level, it remains even more of a mystery to me now than it was before. After spending countless hours photographing the choreographies of production and scrutinizing the parts and pieces that will never be visible outside the factory, I came to realize that a piano is one of the supreme acts of human invention and imagination.
In this era of service jobs and office work, most of us have never been inside a factory. Several decades of overseas competition, unequal trade policies, and a flood of cheap imports have decimated American factories. Since 1990, job losses in apparel and textiles have been greater than those in any other type of manufacturing, and today we have little idea where, or how, the shirt on our back is made.
In 2010, I discovered an old yarn mill in Maine that reminded me of the state hospital workshops I had photographed for my book, Asylum. While those places had long been abandoned, this mill was fully operational, a scene from the past miraculously coexisting with the present. I returned to the mill several times, and from conversations with employees, learned of other mills in the Northeast, many still functioning as they had for decades, using vintage equipment now prized for producing the “genuine article”.
In 2013, I toured several mills in the Carolinas, where the majority of textile production eventually migrated from New England, because the labor was cheaper. The mills are vast and mostly automated, and have survived by adapting technologically to the global marketplace. Though they bear little resemblance to their Northern forbearers, they are bound by a common history and are economically dependent on each other. By the time a finished fabric reaches the customer, it has passed through many factories, each a crucial link in the chain of production.
Over the past five years, I have gained access to an industry that continues to thrive, albeit on a much smaller scale, and for the most part, out of public view. With my photographs I aim to show how this iconic symbol of American manufacturing has changed and what its future may hold. I also wish to pay tribute to the undervalued segment of Americans who work in this sector. They are a cross section of young and old, skilled and unskilled, recent immigrants, and veteran employees, some of whom have spent their entire lives in a single factory. Together, they share a quiet pride and dignity, and are proof that manual labor and craftsmanship still have value in today’s economy.
We tend to think of mental hospitals as “snake pits”—places of nightmarish squalor and abuse—and this is how they have been portrayed in books and film. Few Americans, however, realize these institutions were once monuments of civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians, who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing. For more than half the nation's history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, more than 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948 they housed over half a million patients. But over the next thirty years, with the introduction of psychotropic drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined dramatically, leaving many of these massive buildings neglected and abandoned.
From 2002 to 2008, I visited seventy institutions in thirty states, photographing palatial exteriors designed by famous architects and crumbling interiors that appeared as if the occupants had just left. I also documented how the hospitals functioned as self-contained cities, where almost everything of necessity was produced on site: food, water, power, and even clothing and shoes. Since many of these places have been demolished, the photographs serve as their final, official record.
Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals was published by MIT Press in 2009 and includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks.
All over New York City, hidden behind unassuming historic facades, once hummed the gigantic machinery of the power stations that moved the subways. For over a century, the 125,000-pound converters and related equipment of the substations remained largely unchanged, but in 1999 the last manually operated substation was shut down, and since then they have been systematically dismantled and sold as scrap.
In 1997, I befriended an official of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Power Division and he introduced me to the substations. For five years, I rushed to photograph, draw, and write the history of these amazing buildings and their machines before they were completely gone. With virtually unlimited access to the substations, I developed an intimate bond with the buildings that most people know only in passing.
The complete story can be found in my 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, published by Princeton Architectural Press.