An Interview with Spotlight Artist: Stephen Mallon
By Ashley Yu
Ashley Yu: Our current issue is called RISK, in what ways do you think your photographs of Flight 1459 reflect that theme?
Stephen Mallon: The story behind that aircraft was that it was taken out by a flock of Canadian geese that took off at the wrong moment and got ingested into these turbo fans inside the engines. The engines are designed to handle this. They literally take frozen turkeys and shoot them out during testing. But this was the worst case scenario: They hit an entire flock with both engines ingesting the birds, causing an automatic power-down and they couldn’t continue the flight. Fortunately, there was a very experienced pilot in a well-designed airplane. To date, it was the only commercial aircraft to make an emergency ditch into the water with everybody alive. Air travel, in general, is incredibly safe, when you look at the statistics of driving versus walking, etc. But it’s not 100 percent foolproof.
Ashley: As are most things.
Stephen: Anyone that tells you it’s a 100 percent foolproof is lying.
Ashley: Tell us how you photographed the airplane. The perspective in your images looks like you were straight in the middle of the Hudson River
Stephen: So… I had an existing relationship with a salvage company. On January 15, I’m sitting in a bar with my wife and we’re watching the videos. My wife was wondering how they were going to get this airplane out and suddenly, I realized I knew who was going to do this. This salvaging company has this gigantic rigging crane that I photographed about a year before when they replaced the concorde into the Intrepid. So I reached out to my contact there and he responded that night and was like, “we don’t have the job yet, but I’m going to be in a meeting with the FBI and the Coast Guard tomorrow morning.”
They commissioned me for the whole documentary. That morning, I knew that NYPD was not going to believe anything that I told them to get past the safety barriers. I needed to come in with the crew, that was leaving in an hour. I was in my office in Union Square. I had my car, my camera equipment, winter jacket, hat--all that jazz. I plugged their address into my brand-new GPS and immediately got lost. Literally five minutes after I got there, they untied their tugboat and left.
So those photographs were shot as we were pulling up to the plane, which was tied to the side of the pier. I was shooting from the walkway and from the crane, which was on this giant floating barge. I also had all access to the deck that was five stories up. I had the vantage point of being above sea level and from the point of view of the water. We’d even jump off the barge sometimes and go over to shoot.
Ashley: A lot of your photography collections revolve around the feat of human engineering. What specifically is it about engineering that fascinates you?
Stephen: I am constantly trying to get back to the sandbox. I have been amazed by engineering designs since my childhood and have found an immense amount of beauty that is created accidentally with machines. Some of the moments that I’ve been able to capture, like when the airplane wing was peaking out of the Hudson River while I was shooting--an airplane should not be in the water but together, it created this beautiful landscape that has this historical content attached to it. It’s similar to the MTA project that I was involved with, where the subway cars were being thrown into the Atlantic. That is not where they were designed to be, but they ended up being this condo for fish, creating this dynamic relationship with the water and the repurposing of the material.
Ashley: A lot of your photographs are almost dystopian, especially because human subjects are not usually the main focus. Do you find photographing human subjects more challenging?
Stephen: People are a little more challenging because they want to be the focus when they’re being photographed, but I’m really more enticed by everything around them. A lot of the time, I do people in photographs as a stare reference, and also as a nice reminder that even with all this technology, it still requires people to be operating and controlling them.
Ashley: Is there anything that you haven’t had the chance to share that you would think the benefit the story?
Stephen: If I can just plug my latest solo show at the New York Transit Museum at Grand Central on my MTA project. It’s open to the public on March 20th.