1. Bruce Davidson and the New York Subway


    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    In the spring of 1980, following several years of commercial assignments, and a period writing and producing an unrealised feature film based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Enemies, A Love Story; Magnum member Bruce Davidson felt the need to return to his still photography and to his ‘roots,’ and began to photograph the New York subway system.

    Returning home during the evening rush hour, ‘I would see the packed cars of the subway as cattle cars, filled with people, each face staring or withdrawn with the fear of its unknown destiny,’ writes Davidson, ‘The subway interior was defaced with a secret handwriting that covered the walls, windows, and maps. I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every now and then, when I was looking at one of these cryptic messages, someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded.’

    In the early eighties, the New York subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. To prepare himself for the subway, Davidson says, ‘I started a crash diet, a military fitness exercise program, and early every morning I jogged in the park. I knew I would need to train like an athlete to be physically able to carry my heavy camera equipment around in the subway for hours every day.’


    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    With an expensive camera around his neck, in a way that made him feel like a tourist — or a ‘deranged person,’ Davidson ventured down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and onto the darkened station platform, as he did a sinking sense of fear gripped him. He grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. ‘I had to find a way to feel less vulnerable in the subway without resorting to bodyguards or hiding my camera,’ writes Davidson, ‘To dispel my fears that a mugger might attack me at any moment, I pretended to be a decoy detective. The heavy battery pack with its coiled power cord running from beneath my jacket to the strobe light in my jacket pocket could easily have been mistaken for a police patrol radio.’

    Despite the pretence of being a ‘decoy detective’ or the fantasy of being a hunter stalking his prey (another of his methods to cope with the daily stress of the subterranean world), Davidson still felt ‘afraid,’ finding it hard to approach even a little old lady on the subway. With few of us making even the briefest of eye contact with our fellow passengers as we travel by public transport, we erect a barrier that protects our personal space, it is this tense yet invisible divide between the photographer and his subject, that Davidson would need to act on impulse; for any hesitation may see his subject disappear into the crowd, or getting off the train at the next station.

    Davidson says he dealt with this in several ways. ‘Often I would just approach the person: “Excuse me. I’m doing a book on the subway and would like to take a photograph of you. I’ll send you a print.” If they hesitated, I would pull out my portfolio and show them my subway work; if they said no, it was no forever.’ At other times, he would take the picture, before seeking permission, then apologise, ‘explaining that the mood was so stunning I couldn’t break it, and hoped they didn’t mind.’ Then there were the times when he would take the picture without saying a word, but he would not remain invisible, as his electronic flash popped bathing in his subject in brilliant white light his presence would be known. ‘When it went off, everyone in the car knew that an event was taking place — the spotlight was on someone. It also announced to any potential thieves that there was a camera around. Well aware of that, I often changed cars or trains after taking pictures.’

    In the early days of the Subway series, Davidson worked exclusively in back and white, however, after a while he began to see a ‘dimension of meaning’ that demanded a colour ‘consciousness.’ Whilst colour photography was not new to Davidson, who had produced most of his commissioned work and all of his films in colour, his personal projects, such as the seminal East 100th Street (Harvard University Press, 1970) had been made in black and white.

    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    ‘But colour in the subway was different,’ remarks Davidson, I found that the strobe light reflecting off the steel surfaces of the defaced subway cars created a new understanding of colour. I had seen photographs of deep-sea fish thousands of fathoms below the ocean surface, glowing in total darkness once light had been applied. 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 passengers who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks, and closed off from each other.’

    ‘Davidson is a photographer with a documentarian’s heart and a cinematographer’s eye — Caravaggio-like at times, the way he plays with light and the effects of chiaroscuro, writes Fred Braithwaite, ‘A shadow across a face, a view from a window as three kids peer out, a Coney Island Wonder Wheel, a man stares back through graffiti-stained glass, strange multi-ethnic hands grip the pole for balance as the train speeds to the next stop.’

    ‘I became addicted to the subway. When I heard the rumble of the express train running several floors below our apartment, and felt the walls shake, my senses heightened, like a werewolf responding to the full moon,’ says Davidson who explored the the subway system line by line, riding each to the its final destination and then back again, although most of the time he didn’t set a destination, choosing to be carried wherever the subway would take him, occasionally referring to the map and making mental notes of places that he would return to at a latter date.

    Davidson would send prints of the photographs he had made on the subway, to those he had photographed, but admits that sometimes he struggled to read the handwriting of those who wrote their address down for him, or they would give him the wrong address, or he mix up the pictures, sending the wrong ones. ‘In Williamsburg, I persuaded an Orthodox rabbi to pose for me on the subway platform. Later I photographed a young Latino couple passionately embracing. Somehow I got the two pictures mixed up. The picture of the Latino couple was returned with a letter from the rabbi: “Im am sorry this is not my picture. I am a rabbi with a beard, not a Puerto Rican couple half undressed.” I never heard from the Latino couple,’ he says.


    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    As the series evolved, Davidson began to explore the subway late at night and in the early hours, particularly the deeper subterranean stations — which appeared warmer in the winter months — where he had noticed people wrapped in blankets and sleeping on benches. At this time of day the subway became a no man’s land ‘for the homeless a few late-night riders, and the roaming animals of prey who inhabit the subway until the first morning workers begin to fill the platforms and trains around 5:00 a.m.’

    One day whilst riding the empty railway carriages at three in the morning, the doors slammed open at a station, and a middle-aged woman boarded the train and began to undress. ‘Out of a paper shopping bag she took some soiled articles of underclothing, a hotel towel, a pair of worn shoes, and a wine bottle, and carefully placed them all in the middle of the train floor. Onto them she poured cornflakes, then crushed ripe strawberries between her fingers and dripped that onto the breakfast cereal, making a sickening mess. I asked, “Are you making a subway collage?” She stared hard at me, lit up a cigarette, and sat down. I asked if I could take photographs for a book I was doing on the subway. She stood up, stamped out her cigarette, and then lifted up her dress. My flash went off a few times. The doors between the cars opened, and three youths with their eyes on my camera charged into the car, but halted when they spotted the mess on the floor. “Hey man, look at that shit on the floor. Let’s get outta here!” They turned and went back out into another carriage, and Davidson realised the pile of disgusting refuse on the floor was a protective bonfire to keep the wild animals away. It had probably saved me from a mugging, he says. He continuing to ride with the woman to the end of the line at South Ferry.

    ‘Along the way, I recalled an image from a book of war atrocities called The Yellow Star, of a woman — young and vivacious — who’d been stripped naked on a street during a Nazi manhunt in Poland.’ Getting off the train at the same station, Davidson asked the woman to sign a release, ‘as she signed it, ‘she spoke to me in fragmented sentences I didn’t understand, muffled by a screeching train turning in the station to go back uptown. She had a stage voice, and I asked if she had been an actress. Again I couldn’t understand her reply. I asked if she needed help in some way, handed her a few dollars, then summoned a conductor. She turned to him and said, “Sir, this man has just raped me.” Slowly she walked to an empty bench, curled up, and went to sleep. The conductor shrugged and walked away.’

    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    On one particularly cold day, Davidson was standing on the elevated platform at Queensboro Plaza, when a vicious gust of wind ripped a large magenta filter — that he had just removed from the front of his lens — from his hands. It rolled across the platform and disappeared over the edge. As the filter was special order, and had taken several weeks to be delivered, and was essential to his work underground whilst working in artificial light, the photographer first checked if there were any trains approaching before jumping down on to the tracks to recover it. But in doing so he misjudged the distance, and  fell. tearing a ligament in his finger. Having he recovered the filter, he was helped back onto the platform by a man who had kindly guarded over the photographers camera bag, but in that moment, Davidson says, ‘I recognised that the subway was beginning to take power over me. It was becoming a way of life, and I feared it.’

    Noticing two seventeen-year-old boys smoking pot in the last carriage of the A train, that would take him to Jamaica Bay, Davidson entered the car to see them more clearly. As he got closer he could see they looked dejected and withdrawn, and decided against talking with them. After standing and watching the Manhattan skyline disappear into the hazy distance, he sat down a few seats away with his back to the youths, one of whom then got up and walked past Davidson and started talking to a young girl sitting across the aisle. As the train slowed down and stopped at the Chauncey Street station, the doors opened and the youth quickly turned from the girl and rushed at me with the blade of a knife protruding from between his thumb and forefinger, says Davidson. ‘He stood astride me, the blade next to my jugular. I heard his deep, guttural voice: “Gimme that camera.” His face was thin and dark, his eyes wide and desperate. I thought about the razor blade at my throat, and my words were, “Take the camera.” His partner behind me released the door, and they were out of the car with the camera, running down the platform stairs.’


    Above Untitled, from Subway. (©Bruce Davidson/Courtesy of Steidl).

    Although he had lost a valuable camera, Davidson was unharmed in the attack, and the muggers didn’t take his camera bag in which he had a second camera and several lenses. After reporting the mugging, to the train conductor, he was met at the next station where he was met by the police, who escorted him to the police station where he answered questions and filled out papers. Later, two detectives in an unmarked police car drove him through the neighbourhood. As we cruised through the sweltering streets, people sitting on tenement stoops looked at us in a suspicious way that told me this had happened here before. As he sat in the backstreet of the police car, Davidson says, ‘I was no longer the heroic hunter stalking dangerous prey, but just another pathetic mugging victim.’

    In transforming the grim, abusive, violent, and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of colour, I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today, writes Davidson. ‘From all over the earth, people come into the subway. It’s a great social equaliser. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom, and we, trapped inside, all hang on together.

    ‘His images of life on the subway are often smart, sullen, and true. It’s amazing how often Bruce, in the magical way that only great photographers can, is able to capture the reality of subway life, bristling with the essence of the real. “When in the subway, what is beautiful appears bestial, and what is bestial becomes beautiful,” is how he saw it,’ remarks Braithwaite, ‘Probing, stalking, and scouting like a hunter, Bruce picked his subjects carefully, and in most cases it boggles the mind the way he’s able to capture these moments, as if his camera was there, but he was not.’

    A new edition of Subway is published by Steidl.

    Further reading Bruce Davidson’s journey of conciouness, ‘Outside Inside.’