October 30, 2020

Think You’ve Seen the Subway? Not Like This You Haven’t

Patrick Cashin has climbed the steep cables to the top of the Throgs Neck Bridge, where peregrine falcons circled above. The birds were a bonus. He was there to photograph electricians working on one of the towers as the staff photographer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the bridges, tunnels and transit system for New York City and several surrounding counties.

“You’re like in the center of the earth, when they were still cutting the rock and blasting for the East Side Access Tunnel,” said Mr. Cashin, who recently retired. “The camera gives you a false sense of security. I got to go to the top of a lot of bridges. I went to highest point of the city and the deepest.”

His 20 years with the M.T.A. has included some of the city’s most challenging and harrowing times: the attacks on the World Trade Center, Superstorm Sandy, train derailments and the coronavirus pandemic. But it also includes moments of awe and beauty, and behind-the-scenes peeks at parts of the system most New Yorkers never get to see.

ImageMr. Cashin climbed to the top of the Throg’s Neck Bridge where he captured the flight of peregrine falcons.

“Just like you’d want someone to do oral histories, you needed someone like Pat around to do the visual history,” said Joseph L. Lhota, the former M.T.A. chairman. “Both the good and the bad, from derailments to station openings.”

In a way, Mr. Cashin was born — in Brooklyn — for this job: His father, an Irish immigrant, worked in the subway, starting as a collection booth clerk and retiring 45 years later as a dispatcher. As a young man, Mr. Cashin spent four years on active duty in the Navy, where he began as a diesel mechanic, and afterward joined the Coast Guard Reserve, where he worked as a photographer.

He also worked in the darkroom at Newsweek magazine, though try as he might, he couldn’t get any of his pictures published. A connection he made at a photo conference in the late ’90s reached out to him in 2000 about the M.T.A. job, which he jumped at.

“I had been shooting a lot in the reserves, but I wanted to photograph things in real life,” he said. “What I really wanted to do was get out of Newsweek and shoot. I had a vague idea of what I’d be doing, but I was more than willing to take it on.”

His work was hardly the kind of grip-and-grin photos people associate with government agencies. He got into parts of the system that were off-limits to most people. His work could be documentary — as with his sustained coverage of the construction of the Second Avenue subway or the transport of a subway car out to the Rockaways. But his photos also offered some ethereal moments, like when he photographed birds of prey from the tops of bridges. His colors were rich, his perspective unique.

Mr. Cashin’s military experience came in handy, too, keeping him aware of his surroundings in a place where heavy equipment operators needed to know where he was. “I used to take pictures on aircraft carrier decks, where it was hectic there, too, so I knew where and where not to stand. But the military also gave me more confidence in my photographic abilities. When I got to the M.T.A., I was more comfortable and sure of myself as a I got to the construction sites and climbing the bridges.”

Mr. Lhota, who still keeps several images by Mr. Cashin in his office at N.Y.U. Langone, said an image of a subway car being lifted onto a flatbed carrier was one of his favorites. After Superstorm Sandy knocked out service to the Rockaways, the M.T.A. put its trains onto higher ground. But, Mr. Lhota said, the agency had come up with a plan to bring subway cars by truck to the peninsula and lift them onto the tracks for an improvised east-west shuttle.

We “thought we could take rail cars, lift them onto flatbeds, drive them over the bridge and, once we got to the Rockaways, in the middle of the night, lift them in air on the tracks,” said Mr. Lhota. “Honestly, we didn’t know if it was going to work. But it did. No one saw it happen. But Pat did.”

Apart from in-house use, Mr. Cashin’s photos have been distributed to media outlets and published internationally. It’s a rewarding feeling, he said, especially when a former Newsweek photo editor contacted him to say she never knew he had such skills.

But he was famous by then, at least in some parts.

“Just a couple of weeks ago an English paper ran a shot I took of a lone usher in Grand Central,” he said. “It was an emotional picture that appeared all over the world. A lot of engineers on the East Side access project are from Pakistan. One of them told me, ‘You know, you’re famous in Pakistan because I send a lot of your pictures back home.’ I thought that was funny.”