In Subway (1986) Bruce Davidson shows New York City looking sweaty, rowdy and visceral. You can almost hear the loud clank of metal on metal, smell the fumes of signature graffiti paint, and feel keys pressed hard into sweaty palms as riders push the jagged edges through their fingers. We’ve seen NYC in the fear era through Meryl Meisler’s photographs of Bushwick, and now Davidson follows Willy Spiller into the city’s subterranean nerve system, where scare stories are born and retold by survivors who made the journey from office to home. Not all of it was myth: in first three months of 1979 eight people were murdered on the New York Subway.
“To prepare myself for the subway, 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. Also, I thought that if anything was going to happen to me down there I wanted to be in good shape, or at least to believe that I was. Each morning I carefully packed my cameras, lenses, strobe light, filters, and accessories in a small, canvas camera bag. In my green safari jacket with its large pockets, I placed my police and subway passes, a few rolls of film, a subway map, a notebook, and a small, white, gold-trimmed wedding album containing pictures of people I’d already photographed in the subway. In my pants pocket I carried quarters for the people in the subway asking for money, change for the phone, and several tokens. I also carried a key case with additional identification and a few dollars tucked inside, a whistle, and a small Swiss Army knife that gave me a little added confidence. I had a clean handkerchief and a few Band-Aids in case I found myself bleeding.”
– Bruce Davidson
“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.”
– Bruce Davidson.
“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.”
– Bruce Davidson
“It was hard for me to approach even a little old lady. There’s a barrier between people riding the subway – eyes are averted, the wall is set up. The break through this painful tension I had to act quickly on impulse, for if I hesitated, my subject might get off at the next station and be lost forever.”
– Bruce Davidson
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