How to Take Photographs 90 Feet Below Manhattan

08.07.12 Bucky Turco

“It was hot,” even “in January,” said Richard Barnes. The photographer has descended into the subterranean cavern that will become the Second Avenue Subway several times over the past few months to immortalize the massive feat of engineering. Barnes was shooting the images for a New York Times Magazine cover story for last week’s issue. Although he’s done several covers for the mag, this latest one definitely isn’t as strange as his first assignment:

“I’ve done a lot of work for the New York Times Magazine over the years and I seem always to get the, well, the odder of the assignments,” explained Barnes, “The first project I ever did with them was photograph the Unambomber’s cabin.”

The lensman’s stunning photographs for this current piece didn’t come easy. He entered the tunnel via a “rickety elevator” at 72nd Street. He took that 90 feet below to the muddy surface, a trip he would eventually make a total of four times to get the images he needed. Although his handlers were with him at all times and made him wear a hardhat, goggles, and a “highly reflective coat,” it was by no means a safe place.

“Yeah I had to sign waivers,” said Barnes. “It’s dangerous down there. It’s not conveyed in the photographs necessarily, but when you’re there it really is a construction site down there. You’re kind of on your own and nobody’s looking out for you, you have to look out for yourself.”

Adding to the many hazards inherent in a site such as this, was the heavy equipment, specifically the type that moves. “Giant vehicles would come out of nowhere and you’d have to be very careful,” said Barnes.

When asked if he could give some advice to fellow photogs shooting in similar conditions, he offered this: “Wear your hard hat backwards…you can’t photograph with a hard hat’s bill. I can’t anyway.”

(Photos: Jeannie Kwon/MTA)