March 1 2017 01:04 PM

Photography exhibit explores use of subway cars as artificial barrier reefs

Stephen Mallon’s “Next Stop Atlantic,” a photography exhibition on display at the MSU Museum, documents the New York City Transit Authority’s attempts to create artificial barrier reefs by dropping retired subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean.
Courtesy photo

Stephen Mallon’s latest exhibition of photographs features decommissioned subway cars being unceremoniously dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. But this isn’t large-scale littering. The sunken subway cars will serve as artificial barrier reefs, intended to provide a habitat for ocean life along the East Coast.

“I am always looking for infrastructure-related projects, unique recycling, energy systems and projects that relate to the ocean,” Mallon said. “My focus for the past 10 years has been on the industrial landscape.”

“Next Stop Atlantic,” on display at the MSU Museum, features photos of the subway car project taken between 2008 and 2011. Mallon’s work has appeared in National Geographic, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, and he has hosted solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States. Mallon, 43, comes to the MSU Museum Thursday to discuss his work.

“Next Stop Atlantic” follows the New York City Transit Authority’s efforts to create habitats for fish and crustaceans by dump- ing retired subway cars into the ocean. The pictures capture every moment of the process, from the suspenseful lifting of the train cars to the explosive collision of metal and water. Images of the spray are punctuated with detailed photographs of the skeletal frames of the cars them selves. The project takes a look at recycling on a scale far beyond dropping plastic bottles in the proper bin. Mallon hopes that audiences realize “this is a positive move to repopulate the ocean.”

According to a 2015 CNN article on the same topic, over 2,500 train cars have been dumped into the ocean, creating “400 times as much food per square foot for fish to eat.” Beyond this, the multi-ton cars provide ample shelter for fish looking to escape predators.

The project began in 2000, but Mallon heard about it a few years later.

“I discovered it in The New York Times in 2007 — I had just started my long-term project on the recycling industry in America,” Mallon said. “I shot it over the span of three years. I would love to shoot more, but unfortunately, it is finished.”

Mallon said that though his photographs have become the topic of much environmental discussion, his involvement in that discussion “formed after.”

“I didn't realize how much these images were going to resonate with so many aspects of society,” Mallon said.

Mallon offers this pearl of wisdom to anyone taking any nautically-oriented photos:

“Don’t edit the photos on the back of a boat,” he said.

This and other pieces of advice will be part of Mallon’s hour-long photographer talk at the MSU Museum’s Auditorium. Visitors will get the opportunity to hear about Mallon’s experiences and ask questions about his work.

Mallon’s exhibition is part of the campus-wide Water Moves MSU Initiative, which brings a wide variety of water-focused events to MSU’s campus, including guest speakers, musicians, visual art, film screenings and policy discussions. “Next Stop Atlantic” is the first of two exhibitions presented by the museum as part of the initiative. In March, the MSU Museum hosts an exhibition of photography by Native American artist Camille Seaman, who documented the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The two photography exhibitions are curated by Howard Bossen, professor of photography and visual communications at MSU’s School of Journalism.

Bossen, in an article for MSU Today, praised Mallon’s work.

“Stephen Mallon’s ‘Next Stop Atlantic’ series raises questions about the oceans as an integral part of our ecosystem and imaginative ways to ameliorate damage done to it by humankind,” he said.

“Next Stop Atlantic”
Stephen Mallon photography exhibition
Through September 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
$5 suggested donation
Ground Floor Gallery, MSU Museum
409 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing
(517) 355-2370

Photographer Talk with Stephen Mallon
12:15-1:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2
MSU Museum Auditorium
409 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing
(517) 355-2370