Most visitors to New York City see its underground by way of the subway system. But the city has another subterranean aspect, seen by far fewer visitors: its basements, often inhabited by buildings’ superintendents and their families.
In 2010, while apartment-hunting with her husband in upper Manhattan, German photographer Gesche Würfel began documenting these hidden basement homes. In a city of 8.3 million, where open space and privacy is hard to come by, it can take a lot of creativity to make close quarters bearable. A new exhibit at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Ore. showcases Würfel’s full-color series, “Basement Sanctuaries,” featuring underground lairs transformed into cozy dens, vaults of strange art, and dungeon-like gyms.
Würfel was just moving from New York from Germany. She found that many of the building “supers” she encountered while searching for a new home were also immigrants, often from Latin America or the Caribbean, and she felt an affinity for them. She had also studied urban planning, and was interested in the way space functions in New York City apartment buildings.
Though the supers aren’t present in the images, their personalities come through in their choice of decoration: They transformed stark, mostly lightless environments into sanctuaries, with plants, birdcages, twinkle lights, and murals on the walls. Since these basements are often on view to the building’s residents, “[t]he supers’ decorations function as a territorial claim over the basement’s public/private space,” Würfel writes in her artist statement.
Würfel’s photographs are on display at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Ore., until September 28.