Peek Inside These Beautiful Basements

Gesche Würfel
Gesche Würfel / Gesche Würfel

Photography by Gesche Würfel
Q&A by Kristy Puchko

Manhattan’s skyline is an inspiration. Its sub-basements? Not so much. Those are the forgotten domain of superintendents, whose job it is to keep a building clean and its utilities humming. For many live-in supers, though, the basement is a place of their own: a room of responsibility, sure, but also for respite. Gesche Würfel has documented some of the city’s most colorful. Here, supers have decorated with personal flair, collecting mementos and assembling materials abandoned or gifted to them by tenants who have moved on. The sweet and surprising details hint at a pride in workplace that makes even a space as unlikely as a boiler room feel like home.

Würfel's path to the surprisingly surreal subterranean realms of New York City was a winding and unexpected one. She told us how she first discovered her passion for photography while working as an urban planner, "using photography as a participatory tool to show how various groups perceive public spaces." From there, the self-taught photographer earned an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. After serving as an assistant to celebrated architectural photographer Hélène Binet, Würfel struck out on her own in 2009 in the U.S., where she now teaches, shoots, and occasionally fields questions.

What inspires you to pick up your camera?
I draw my inspiration from the immediate places where I live. As I have lived in many different places and settings, from rural to suburban to urban in Germany, England, and the U.S., my projects are international but still very site-specific.

Through my background as urban planner and visual sociologist I explore places and structures by analyzing them for particular attributes, for example who lives and frequents particular places or buildings, who may be excluded, what interactions are visible or invisible but definable through traces, what kind of buildings, streets and other infrastructure, green spaces, or other features can be seen. Using my "photographer’s eyes" I compose images, often with a strong leaning towards architectural photography, which is visible in the formal lines and analytical way that I use to frame my images.

What made you think to photograph a series of basements?
A few years ago, my husband and I went apartment-hunting in Uptown Manhattan—Inwood and Washington Heights. At first, I was mainly interested in the apartments until my husband, a New York City native, insisted on seeing the basements as one can judge the quality of a building from its basement. What I encountered in these basements of NYC was truly amazing. Over the course of two years, starting in early 2011, I photographed how superintendents decorate the basements of apartment buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights by illuminating the process of migrant adaptation to the metropolis from an intimate perspective.

Even though I had lived in big cities before, the concept of having a superintendent live in the building was new to me … I was surprised to see how much care the supers took of the basements as usually one associates darkness and perhaps fear with basements. Most of the basements were very friendly looking and inviting places. And additionally, I was interested in which ways they adapted to the metropolis as migrants as I am a migrant myself.

What did you look for when scouting for basements to shoot?
I searched for original looking decoration, like plants, images, objects. I was very happy to find that not every basement was painted in white and grey. I was looking for clues from the super’s home country, paintings of beaches or the mountains, small objects, and of their dreamscapes—like the image of Paris on a mirror. I was expecting to see more religious images, but I found these were mainly displayed inside the apartments.

You make an intriguing choice by focusing on these sanctuaries without showing the super who lives in them. Can you talk about that decision?
Most of my photographs are without people, but all my images talk about the traces that people have left behind using or passing through the spaces I photograph. I wanted the viewers to concentrate on the spaces and image what kind of person may have decorated it and imagine more about the supers’ lives.

As an additional element for the Basement Sanctuaries book I have also photographed and interviewed most of the supers. I interviewed 18 of the 30 supers whose basements I photographed, however not all of the supers wanted to be portrayed. 

Basement Sanctuaries by Gesche Würfel (Schilt Publishing) is now available.  You can find more on Würfel and her work here.