With our December 2015 issue dedicated to all things storage, the relationship between storage spaces and personal identity is what led us to Gesche Würfel’s photography of the shrine-like basement spaces created by building caretakers in New York City. The German-born photographer, who has a background in urban planning, spoke to uncube’s Fiona Shipwright about her “Basement Sanctuaries” series and carving out a little bit of heimat in the midst of the metropolis.
For our European readers who may not be so familiar with the term - what is a building “super”?
In New York, every building with more than nine units is required to have a “superintendent” either living on the premises or not far away. The superintendent takes care of the building, makes repairs, keeps things clean and they also communicate between the tenants and the management company or the board, if the building is a coop.
How did you come to discover these visually arresting, but highly secluded spaces?
When my husband and I went apartment hunting in Washington Heights, in the very north of Manhattan in 2010, we would always ask to see the basements. This is something he insisted on as he knew that you can judge the quality of a whole building from the basement. So I got to see these really amazing spaces that I otherwise would never have access to without living there. Normally we think of basements as dark places that you don’t want to go to but these places were very inviting. I visited about 30 for the project and it was clear that the supers had put in a lot of effort to make the spaces look the way they do. The super usually not only works but also lives in the basement, often alongside the boiler room and perhaps a workshop too, but there are also communal spaces such as the building’s laundry room. So they want to make it look nice for themselves but they also want the tenants to feel at home when they see it.
The photographs document incredibly intimate looking spaces yet the supers themselves are absent. Did you meet them?
Yes, I did. When I came to put the series together in a book I did ask to include images of each of the supers but not everybody wanted to be photographed. I think they were happy that I was undertaking the project because their job is not so highly regarded and a lot of people look down on it. But actually, in terms of what they do – fixing things, mechanical skills, construction skills – you actually need a lot of expertise. It was always really nice to talk with them, they were pleased that there was interest in their work and the spaces they had created.
Seeing this collection of images from all these different buildings, making yourself at home in the basement seems a widespread practice – is that the case? Is there an expectation that all new supers will create this kind of space?
Yes. In many cases the supers maybe started out as handymen working under former supers, so they got an introduction that way. I found it interesting investigating it as a “tradition”. I particularly tried to find women in the job; I found three but one didn’t want me to photograph her space, one didn’t want to be photographed for religious reasons and the third woman said on the day she was due to be photographed that she wasn’t feeling comfortable with the way she looked. I thought that was a bit sad actually. But in seeking these women out I did get sense of how difficult it seems to be get established in what is considered a “man’s world”. It’s also often a job tied to families, that passes from father to son – but not father to daughter.
The spaces marry the functional with the poetic spheres of “the everyday”. As cities grow ever denser and architects increasingly talk about hybrid spaces, do you think the supers are somehow a little ahead of the game?
In combining living and work spaces? Yes, I think so! When I was working on this project, I was very interested in looking at the spectrum of public and private space it covered – the private, public, semi-private, semi-public. I think it can also be tough for the supers; they cannot easily “retreat” from their work precisely because that’s where they live as well.
You graduated in urban planning before you studied photography and urban cultures. How has that influenced your practice?
It has had, and continues to have, a big influence on my work. I am interested in how humans react to the environment but also how the environment reacts to humans. I think you can see it in all my work, in all the spaces I have documented in various different projects; there is always some kind of sociological element to it.
Given our current issue entitled “Storage” we’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between storage spaces and identity. Your work seems to be a personal example of this, depicting places within which identities are quietly eking out – or claiming – a space within a huge metropolis. Do you think that is a conscious process or a by-product of the function of storage?
I think it’s a little of both. The supers tend to be migrants, especially from the Caribbean or Latin American countries; they used to come more from Eastern Europe but it’s changing now. They find ways to bring their home country into their space, by, for example, putting up pictures on the basement walls that depict scenes of their old homeland – in the photographs you can see images of Mexico and various scenes from the Caribbean. It’s a way of bringing your previous home to your new home. On the other hand though, some of the items in the basements were left behind by former tenants after they moved out, so it was interesting to see they way these things are appropriated into the “identity” of the spaces.
You published this body of work in book form in 2014. Given the huge attention that’s been paid to migration and the refugee crisis this year, has the work taken on new resonance for you?
Well, I was a migrant myself, moving from Germany to the US, having also spent time in the UK. Changing spaces and places – I can identify with a lot of the feelings associated with this kind of shifting. Of course though my story is a little different, I studied in London and came to the USA having married my husband who is from here. Some of the supers though were forced to leave their home because of extreme situations, like poverty or war. But it does seem that for whatever reason, the idea of “storing an identity” in terms of creating a sanctuary is an important thing.
-- Interview by Fiona Shipwright
Gesche Würfel is a German visual artist who is currently based in Chapel Hill, NC. She received her MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her M.A. in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmiths, University of London, UK, and her Diploma in Urban Planning from the University of Dortmund, Germany. Her first monograph, Basement Sanctuaries, was published by Schilt Publishing in 2014.
Further reading: delve into the box of tricks that is uncube issue no. 39: Storage.