Subway-01.jpgByron Company, “Queensboro Tunnel” (1918 ), from the the Museum of the City of New York.
Seeing the Subway
Posted by Jessie Wender
Looking on Instagram, it’s hard not to see at least a picture a day from the New York City subway. Photographers armed with iPhones shoot from the hip, casually glancing at the screen of their phone or pushing in front of fellow-passengers to capture dancers on a moving train. The subway has long been a subject for photographers, from early anonymous photographs of its construction to images of passengers in repose, beautiful graffiti, homeless dwellers, the casual rider, and its majestic architecture. This week, we’re taking a look at pictures of the New York subway, often by artists with bodies of work devoted to the subject. Next week, we’ll look at underground systems around the world.
“Between 1938 and 1941 Evans photographed passengers in the New York City Subway with a camera cleverly hidden inside his coat,” according to the Metropolitan’s Web site. “With the focus and exposure of his 35mm Contax predetermined, Evans was completely free to attend to the transient expressions and conduct of his fellow passengers.” Evans said of photographing on the train: “These anonymous people who come and go in the cities and who move on the land; it is on what they look like now; what is in their faces and in the windows and the streets beside and around them, what they are wearing and what they are riding in, and how they are gesturing that we need to concentrate, consciously, with the camera.”
Subway-03.jpgStanley Kubrick, “Life and Love on the New York City Subway (Couple Sleeping on a Subway)” (1946)/Courtesy collections of the Museum of the City of New York.
“Stanley took thousands of images for Look Magazine between 1945 and 1950,” Phil Grosz, from SK Film Archives, told me. “He sold the first image at age sixteen.” The Museum of the City of New York writes, “Many of the shots are candid portraits of people seemingly unaware of any camera, perhaps indicating the use of some sort of spy or buttonhole camera.”
Subway-04.jpegEnrico Natali, from the book “New York Subway, 1960” published in by Nazraeli Press in association with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“This photograph is from a series taken in the New York subway during a four-month period in 1960,” Natali told me. “At the time, although I worked professionally as a photographer, I didn’t take it seriously as a profession. I did it because it was fun. I had worked for Antron Bruehl, a high-end commercial photographer, where we did top-of-the-line advertising photographs. It was interesting, but, quite truthfully, I despised advertising and most of the people associated with it, most particularly the art directors. So I thought maybe photojournalism would be more to my taste, and decided to shoot a few stories and learn how to do it. Since I lived in the depths of Brooklyn and rode the subway to where I worked in Manhattan, it seemed reasonable to make the subway my first project. I became so involved in the work that for a time I all but lived in the subway. One night, looking over the photographs, I had the realization that they were larger than I was, that photography was my vocation, and America my subject.”
Subway-05.jpgJon Naar, “Times Square Shuttle” (1973), from the book “The Birth of Graffiti.”
“In the winter of 1972, I was assigned by Pentagram Design London to photograph a brochure on N.Y.C.,” Naar told me. “The hot topic was the spray-can-graffiti phenomenon, and I became the first professional photographer to document it. My ten-day shoot resulted in in the iconic book ‘The Faith of Graffiti,’ with an introduction by Norman Mailer.”
“In the late seventies, I was working on a personal photo project documenting kids on the Lower East Side playing with toys they made from trash,” Cooper told me. “One boy showed me sketches in his notebook, and explained that he was practicing his nickname to paint on a wall. When I expressed interest, he offered to introduce me to a ‘king.’ The king turned out to be Dondi, and I became obsessed with graffiti. From Dondi and his crew, I heard many stories about the exploits of subway writers. Finally, in 1980, I accompanied them on a mission to the New Lots yards, in Brooklyn. In this photo, Dondi is completing a top-to-bottom car he titled ‘Children of the Grave Part 3,’ because there had been two previous versions. This shot was taken at sunrise, following a night of spray painting. Because the subway cars were parked in parallel rows, the writers could brace themselves between them and reach the top. This was probably the most exciting night of my life, and this is my all-time favorite photo.”
Subway-07.jpgBruce Davidson (1980)/Courtesy Magnum.
“The subway has even more meaning today than in the past, for we live in turbulent and tense times, where humanity can be both amazing and horrific,” Bruce Davidson writes in “Notes on the Subway,” the 2003 rerelease of his book “Subway.” “Although nearly 25 years have passed and the subway itself has changed and improved, we are not always aware of our past, what awaits us, or the passage of time. I explored the six hundred miles of subway tracks, uncovering layers of live in a bestial and beautiful subterranean world. Today the world is riding the rails on a subway to unknown destinations, where social strife and suicidal sadism are trapped in the same train with ordinary people trying best to live their lives. The gruesome biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction ride along with us. The train has long left the station and again, we find ourselves hanging on together.”
Subway-08.jpgMargaret Morton, “Bernard, the Tunnel” (1993).
“Between 1991 and 1996, I photographed the homeless individuals who lived in the tunnel that stretches for two and a half miles beneath Riverside Park,” Morton told me. “Bernard Isaac, who made his home in the tunnel for eleven years, was known by many of the forty-five members of this underground community as Lord of the Tunnel. ‘The Tunnel’ is a book of my photographs and oral histories of the residents and the homes that they created for themselves underground.”