If you want to venture into New York City’s subterranean nether circles, let Jeff Roth be your Virgil. To a basement two levels below the bustling streets near Times Square, for example. Just past some leaky pipes, a hole in the ground and through some heavy metal doors, he led me to an unexpected morgue.
This was my destination a few months back, and the experience was nothing short of a time warp. For one, when I met Roth, the morgue’s sole custodian, I felt remarkably underdressed. His neatly combed hair, wingtips, navy suit and pocket square were of another era — especially in contrast to the dazzling LED-light lobby of The New York Times, where we met.
If it isn’t already obvious — this morgue, as Times employees call it, is the newspaper’s archive.
By the numbers: It’s 4,000 cabinet drawers of newspaper clips, according to Roth, and 5 to 6 million photographic prints and contact sheets, cross-referenced by card catalogs made on typewriters and amended by hand. The scope is downright unfathomable, the system impossibly antiquated.
Down here, there are no windows; there’s no natural light. It’s forever fluorescent, and time seems to stop as you crank open the rickety filing cabinets and sift through photo after never-ending photo of who knows what.
Darcy Eveleigh, a photo editor at The New York Times, recalls having missed meals and lost countless hours to the morgue’s magnetic pull. She and a few others have somewhat recently begun sounding its depths for an online project called “The Lively Morgue” — both a unique Tumblr site and a blog series — in which they resurrect random found photos.