Hannah Abel-Hirsch


Bruce Davidson's vivid underground exploration of New York's subway system in the 1980s is an epoch-defining series that marked the photographer's shift from black and white to color
Feature, Magnum Photos — November 2019

Photo: Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

“If I am looking for a story at all, it is in my relationship to the subject — the story that tells me, rather than that I tell” writes Bruce Davidson in regard to how he approaches photographic projects. Indeed, his critically acclaimed photo essay Subway was “a voyage of discovery” for the American photographer; the result of half a decade spent exploring the ominous reaches of the subway system in the 1980s. Both a captivating study of light and color and a historical document of an elemental part of New York, Subway captures the many faces of the underbelly of this city.

Steadily deteriorating ever since the opening of the first underground line in 1904, by the time Davidson embarked on his project in the spring of 1980, the subway had reached its lowest ebb. Emblazoned with graffiti and bathed in the unsettling fluorescence of cheap strobe lights, for most, it was a perilous place replete with violent gangs and the homeless.  Davidson however found, in this hostile landscape of decay, a captivating aesthetic experience. He switched to color, from his usual medium of black & white film, in order to truly capture the unique atmosphere and the people he encountered within it, all steeped in “an iridescence like that I have seen in photographs of deep-sea fish”.

We asked Davidson about his perspective on the work today and whether he thinks he would have been so drawn to the subject had it not been in such a state of disrepair: “ [this] gave a tension and a purpose to my photographs,” he replied. “To explore, express, and encounter life as it was seen in the subway. I had what might have been called ‘tunnel vision.’”

“It’s a great social equalizer … From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the train moves into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom and we, trapped inside, all hang on together,” observes Davidson in the introduction to his book. Existing beneath a city defined by its diversity and promise of opportunity, the subway appears as a microcosm of this sprawling urban metropolis: a democratizing realm where individuals from all walks of life sit side by side in a setting as frantic and unruly as the streets above. Yet, as is the paradox of New York itself, these photographs also highlight the isolation of individuals within this sea of passengers; in his words “ [people] who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks, and closed off from each other.” Speaking to us about how he views the project today, Davidson reiterates this sentiment: “I feel that there was a passion and a purpose to photographing in the subway. We were all in the same boat and I was just expressing the everyday occurrences in the subway at that point in 1980. It’s a different subway, although you still have to watch your back.”

Disrupting the closed off realm of riders who captured his eye was a central part of Davidson’s process: “if they said, ‘Yes’, it was yes; if they said, ‘No,’ then I knew it was no forever.” Carrying with him a small, white, golf-trimmed wedding album filled with examples of his Subway work, on requesting to take someone’s picture, he would often bring this out to convince the subject of his intentions. Other times, the moment would be too perfect and Davidson would photograph without permission, explaining himself after the image was safely imprinted on his film.

Many were willing, enthusiastic even, about showcasing the realities of the subway system, but, with his expensive camera slung round his neck, Davidson also fell victim to attacks and muggings. “As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and on to the darkened station platform, a sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack.”

His variety of experiences are palpable in the pages of Subway; through Davidson’s photographs we are taken on a visceral journey through this vast network of darkened tunnels, vandalized platforms and eerie carriages. With renovations beginning on the subway during the eighties, today the transit system is in some ways unrecognizable. Asked about his perspective on the subway as it exists now and how it has changed, Davidson replies: “Of course you have to be aware of not standing too close to the platform and things of that nature to avoid catastrophe. But apart from that it has greatly improved to the point that there is a certain banality that bores me.”

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