Copyright Gina LeVay 2009 courtesy powerHouse Books
You could say that Gina LeVay had to “get down and dirty” to photograph the miners who create the underground tunnels for New York City. This is a mash-up of those who are involved in the tunneling, affectionately called Sandhogs, and the environmental context of where their efforts take place. Also apparent as I study these photographs is that the construction of these underground labyrinths is also a dangerous place to work, least photograph.
LeVay has captured the intense features of the Sandhogs in the midst of work, a series of environmental portraits, of men toiling at remove rock and debris, who are burrowing, digging, cutting, and blowing apart the bedrock. She also finds them in pensive moments during a break in the action, or at the end of a hard day of labor; dirty, grimy, probably very smelly and need of a long hot shower. The pride in their work and who they are is evident in their facial expressions, especially their intense eyes, direct and unflinching contact with her lens, as well as their posture and stance.
LeVay’s documentary style photographs are similar in nature to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial “anonyamous sculptures”, but in her case she is working the negative space created by the urban miners, a reverse sculpture, defined by what is removed and not by what was added.
Her wonderful chiaroscuro lighting, created by taking advantage of the industrial illumination, is dramatic, with intense and saturated colors. The bold contrast that this lighting creates provides a sense of volume and depth to these photographs, as well as mystery and intrigue. The dark shadows hint of the ever-present danger of the mining working conditions, dangerous enough to have led to the death of twenty-four Sandhogs on this tunneling project.
Due to the low light, frequently the figures are blurred due to the longer duration, while sometime the entire photograph is blurred due to hand holding of the camera. The resulting effect provides me with a visual equivalence to the underground vibration and noise created by the heavy construction and what it might be like to be in her mucking boots.
Bonnie Yochelson in her assay adds “She began to refine her vision, capturing the phantasmagoric quality of the vast, glistening, stream-filled, rocky cavern littered with machinery. She often portrayed the sandhogs silhouetted against this dreamscape.”
LeVay provides a fascinating and intricate industrial maze of man, machinery, equipment and fixtures. The fitting inside back cover photograph is of an 800 foot supply shaft to the tunnels, of which LeVay is literally capturing the light at the end of the tunnel as well as symbolic of hope, faith and potential redemption.
This photobook includes quotations by the Sandhogs and all of the photographs are captioned at the conclusion of the book. The images are frequently full page bleeds, some spanning the book spread, with the binding not restricting any of the images. Pages of a Sandhog portrait are butted up to the environment landscape providing a surreal juxtaposition that is documentary in style The Foreword essay is by Thomas Kelly, a former Sandhog and author, with an Introductory essay by Bonnie Yochelson. The hardcover is paper on boards with perforations (a nice simulation of miner’s bore holes), which appears very durable but in fact is fragile, as the corners easily fray.
by Douglas Stockdale