The photographer's classic book Subway is an extraordinarily visceral record of the city in the 1980s – and provides a revealing contrast to Walker Evans's earlier underground images.
Photo: Born To Film
“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. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night … Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist – or a deranged person.”
This is photographer Bruce Davidson recalling the atmosphere of fear and dread that attended his daily journeys underground into the New York subway system in the early 1980s. His classic book of urban reportage, Subway, has just been republished by Steidl and features several new images. It remains an extraordinarily visceral record of a particular time and place, when New York was a darker, more uneasy, more colourful and altogether more violent place than it is today.
Shooting in colour, Davidson saw himself as a hunter stalking his prey. He soon sensed that the subway had its own peculiar psychology.
“People in the subway, their flesh juxtaposed against the graffiti, the penetrating effect of the strobe light itself, and even the hollow darkness of the tunnels, inspired an aesthetic that goes unnoticed by the passengers who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks and closed off from each other.”
One of the defining aspects of Davidson’s subway series is the contrast between the often palpable solitariness of the passengers in their silent worlds of thought and the clamour of their surroundings: the rumble and screech of the trains, the messy overload of the graffiti scrawl that covers every inch of the walls and windows. Here, the enclosed world of the subway is a metaphor for New York itself, in all its frantic hustle and bustle – its violence, its humanity and its hope.
Davidson must surely have been aware of Walker Evans’s own series of subway photographs, which the older photographer began taking in 1938 but did not publish until 1966, in a volume entitled Many Are Called.
They make for an interesting and revealing contrast. Evans had made his name with his stark but poetic images of the migrant poor of the Great Depression. On one level, his subway photographs can be read as a kind of rejection of the formalism and careful compositions of his earlier work, and as evidence of a restless imagination intent on reinvention. Evans travelled on the subway with a miniature camera concealed inside his coat connected by a long lead to a shutter release that nestled just inside his sleeve. Daily he snapped the people who sat opposite him on the subway, waiting patiently for a revealing moment of reverie or boredom or, on one or two occasions, the onset of sleep. Decades later, Davidson would announce his presence on the subway in typical New York fashion with his expensive camera and in-your-face approach, but Evans remained furtive, clandestinely capturing his subjects lost in their own inner worlds.
The subway, as it emerges out of Evans’s series of portraits, is a very different place to Davidson’s enclosed, anxious, potentially violent environment.
There are few black faces among Evans’s subjects, and little evidence of the urban poor or any trace of the collective survivalist instinct that unites Davidson’s subway travellers. There is no graffiti and only the occasional advertising sign. Here, the subway is a monochrome, restrained and uneventful environment.
Oddly, Evans’s subway portraits occasionally recall police mug shots, particularly when the subject seems to be staring directly back at him as if sensing his motives. In many ways, though, for all their period detail, their sense of a particular time and place long gone, they are prescient photographs, prefiguring the casual aesthetic of more recent times in their odd compositions, their often off-centre framing and their glimpses of anonymous people going about their everyday business each wrapped up in themselves.
It is this capturing of intimacy in a confined, often crowded space that unites the two series; it resonates through the work of later photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans, who evoked the enforced intimacy of strangers on the London tube in a series in 2000, and Chris Marker, who from 2008 to 2010 caught the quiet poetry of the everyday in his photographs of travellers on the Paris metro.
In his introduction to Subway, Bruce Davidson returns to the subject of the subway as a metaphor for the world outside. “It’s a great social equaliser … 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.”
Now see this …
Nude colour portraits of her close friends are juxtaposed with mysterious black and white rural landscapes in Mona Kuhn’s Bordeaux Series, which was created at her summer retreat near Bordeaux. Time passing would seem to be the Proustian subtext. At Flowers, Cork Street, until 29 October.