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The Last Mile

Dec 4

In Jobs, Memories at 8:15am

I have always liked getting my camera into a different place, so it was no surprise to me that I loved a long ago assignment underneath New York City. I have often climbed something for a unique view, but this time, I went way, way down.

Commissioned in 1954, with construction actually beginning in 1970, the new water tunnel that now will serve New York, just coming to completion, has been the largest capital improvement project in the history of the the five boroughs. And, for the most part, nobody really knew much about it. Certainly there wasn’t a lot of fanfare on an ongoing basis. Probably understandable for a project like this, absolutely momentous in scale and importance, but one that rumbled for years in the deep.

The crews that build these tunnels are called Sandhogs. They drill deep, and dangerously, through miles of bedrock, never seeing the sun after riding huge elevators, not up, but down, to work everyday. In the dampness and the darkness, they blast, carve, pour concrete, and move massive machinery about, far below the sidewalks, where unknowing millions turn the tap everyday, and expect water to come out. The whole massive deal has simply been called, Water Tunnel No. 3, and it is designed, predictably, to relieve the pressure on Water Tunnel No.2, which has served Manhattan since 1937.

The Times just reported on the coming completion and brought me back to the nine days I spent for People Magazine with the tunnel crews, deep under ground. Given my last name, I got on well with the sandhogs, who are a predominantly Irish-American bunch. Every morning I’d go down with the morning shift, often working alone, armed with a Nikon and a couple Leicas, some B&W film, a clamp, and an ancient Norman 200B battery flash. Some days, I’d drag along a tripod. It was a wonderfully simple job. The kind of jobs where pictures are literally everywhere are like that. Move and shoot. Move and shoot. I kept repeating a story mantra I have recited in my head for many years–“entire to detail, entire to detail.” Given the scale of the enterprise down there, it would have been easy to have fallen into the trap of shooting “big” pictures all the time, and bypassing the more human details, which are really the important pieces of the picture puzzle.

I looked forward to going down there everyday, but that of course was fueled by the knowledge that my time in the underworld was finite. Being a sandhog is not easy duty. The chill of the deep is always with you, no matter how many layers you wear. Jackhammers make it impossible to hear much, even the rumbling of approaching heavy equipment. High voltage lines snake everywhere, and the muck is often ankle deep. The possibility of a serious accident, or even a death on the job, hangs palpably in the air, right along with the diesel exhaust. It is not for the faint of heart.

One of the guys described it as “building the Sistine Chapel 500 feet under the ground,” which, as you can imagine, presents difficulties. Huge pumping stations feed miles and miles of gargantuan pipes, all chewed out of solid rock, destined to slake the thirst of an ever demanding metropolis.

Annie’s Uncle Mark was a Sandhog for many years, so it’s in the family. They are a hardy bunch, urban miners who punch through rock all day and are understandably up for a laugh when they hit the sunlight again. Down in the tunnels, in the dark and the dust, it’s a serious game. Breaks were welcome, and after a couple days, they would include me as the big coffee thermos would make the rounds. No utensils, so if you took milk and sugar, you would grab two cups and use one as a mixer. With the chill of the deep settling into your bones, coffee never tasted better.

It was wonderful shooting for People at that time. The tandem of Mary Dunn and MC Marden were simply great picture editors to work for. It was an all black and white magazine then, save the cover. And those tunnels down there, with all the dust and the dark, were simply made for Tri-X.

More tk…..






Leigh Catley says:

on December 4, 2013 at 8:55 am


I really enjoy the stories you share of assignments from the past and the insight you provide in a few short words. Today;s offering is no different. Fascinating and always capturing my imagination.

I wonder, have you ever considered a book with these short stories? Joe’s 20 (or however many make sense), Most Memorable Assignments. I would be first in line to buy that one.

Thanks for sharing you stories Joe. All the best to you and your family during the Holiday Season.


Terri says:

on December 4, 2013 at 9:09 am

Unbelievable work, their’s and yours’. Some of the sandhogs look so young. Thank you for sharing their story.

Hans says:

on December 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

Hi Joe,

Great blog! The miners close up just grabbed my attention. Being underground is absolutely great. Just recently I’ve visited an abandoned mine which had been closed in the mid sixties…It’s just great to see what human hands can create.


Fadi Kelada says:

on December 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

Love the portrait of the worker looking at the camera and the rest of the photos are amazing. Big salute to them.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on December 4, 2013 at 10:36 am

And just today, I was thinking “I don’t remember the last time Joe showed some B&W images…”

Wow, these are incredible. Hardhats and cigarettes seemed to be the tools of the daily trade. These image look like stills from a The Deer Hunter-type movie, or Harland County USA, the 70’s documentary on mining.

Fantastic storytelling, fantastic images.

As usual.

~ Mark

John A. says:

on December 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Awesome shots Joe! Thanks for sharing these and the story. It has to be a great feeling knowing that so many of the stories you shot have a significant place in the history of our country and its citizens.

Dave Jones says:

on December 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for posting Joe, fantastic story and fantastic images. Really love the shadows shot, inspirational!

Derek says:

on December 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Thank you Joe,

time after time you’ve recorded and illuminated the working lives of ordinary people.
I’m convinced for you it’s more than just an assignment and that you do it with a will to honor them.
For that I thank you.

Michael Preston says:

on December 5, 2013 at 12:56 am

You are a brilliant photographer and I find your work utterly inspirational. Wonderful images.

Doug says:

on December 5, 2013 at 1:17 am

I love the fact the pictures are black and white. Your work is always great.

Patrik Lindgren says:

on December 5, 2013 at 2:55 am

Fascinating stories come to life once again with your great images.
Great work, as usual.

E. Olusegun Aderinto says:

on December 5, 2013 at 4:39 am

Great drama!

Jo cho says:

on December 5, 2013 at 5:54 am

Thanks joe for your stories!
What gear did you toke with you!


Andor says:

on December 5, 2013 at 2:59 pm

An amazing story again – thats why i like your blog!

nate parker says:

on December 5, 2013 at 5:45 pm

awesome! guy blog!

John F. Williams says:

on December 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Joe, I recently had the opportunity to spend several hours underground photographing the Second Avenue Subway project. What a great experience to see the work that these sandhogs do.

Sandy Gennrich says:

on December 8, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Another great post, Joe. Thanks for the reminder to go from “entire to detail.” It’s nice to know that pros have to think about the the whole story from scene to nuance. I really love the shadow shot.

Zona Ocho says:

on December 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm


There’s no assignments like this today.


Joe Ethridge says:

on December 9, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Thanks for sharing Joe. I drove a truck for 25 years and can relate with the world you’ve shared with us. From a photogs perspective, it must’ve been a blast.

Ken says:

on December 10, 2013 at 9:31 am

Fantastic images. Just incredible. “Entire to detail. Entire to detail.” You certainly never failed to deliver. Really remarkable. Thanks.


Joe McNally says:

on December 10, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Thanks Ken….it’s a fascinating world down there…..Joe

ABC says:

on December 10, 2013 at 11:39 pm

I once developed a movie about these guys, fascinating what they do and how they put their lives on the line every day. Takes someone special to do this job. Your photos really bring the world to life. Thank you.

Neil says:

on December 13, 2013 at 3:15 am

Classic, timeless and epic. Well done Joe!

Simon Dewey says:

on January 2, 2014 at 8:51 am

Wow! These are amazing

Paul carter says:

on March 6, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I’m a welder by trade and I’ve always been fascinated by the men and women behind (or in this case below) the scene that keep infrastructures running. Awesome story a photos!

Paul Carter says:

on March 15, 2014 at 11:04 am

I love this story. I’m a welder by trade and I’ve always thought the work of men and women that build and maintain the infrastructures of the world should be highlighted.

ron says:

on March 28, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Joe, great drama – amazing photo. So cool. Joe – my bucket list is to have a beer with you and Scott Kelby !

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