‘Subway’ by Bruce Davidson
Time and place: New York City Subway, 1980
In the bag: Canon New F1 with motor drive, lenses, Sunpak flash unit and power pack, filters (including magenta to correct daylight film for fluorescent lighting), spare rolls of Kodachrome 64, small picture album, police and subway passes, Swiss Army knife.
Bruce Davidson’s Subway, published in 1986, depicts New York City at a unique and dangerous time in its history. The book was a critical success when it first appeared and several re-prints have helped to strengthen its reputation as a classic work of documentary photography.
Subway has a gritty, visceral quality that few other photo books manage to achieve and it still packs a punch even after repeated viewings. Davidson’s pictures seem to capture every facet of humanity - violence, poverty, mental illness, misery, loneliness, love, tenderness, humour, ugliness and beauty. It’s all there in amongst the grime and graffiti and the sense of danger is almost palpable.
When Davidson started his project in spring 1980, New York City was in the grip of financial crisis and urban decline. Heroin abuse and violent crime was rampant. In 1975, the NYPD was forced to lay off thousands of employees and by 1980 had shrunk by 34% while serious crime had risen by 40%. That year, the murder rate reached 1,814, more than four times the current level.
In the first two months of 1979, six murders occurred on the subway and by that September, 250 serious crimes were being recorded on the subway every week, the highest crime rate of any transport network in the world. Subway maintenance had also been drastically cut back to save money, leading to a build-up of graffiti and garbage all over the network.
Davidson was not the only photographer to take on the New York City subway during this period. “It smelled a lot,” recalls freelancer John F. Conn. “14th Street, Union Square, was basically a urine stop. The air conditioning never worked. People rode between cars because it was the only way to stay cool. And there was a way higher crime rate in the subway than on the streets. Everyone knew it. You avoided falling asleep at all costs.”
Conn was nearly mugged three times while photographing the subway but as an ex-Marine trained in Jujitsu he was well prepared. One morning at 3 a.m., an innocuous looking subway musician pounced on him as he was changing lenses and demanded to know where he kept his money. Conn had a $1,700 lens in one hand and a $500 camera body in the other. He hit his assailant with the camera body. “Hasselblad makes a sturdy camera but it still cost me about $200 in repairs” (Daily Beast, 2009).
Davidson wasn’t an ex-Marine but he was no stranger to working in tough environments. He had spent time photographing a Brooklyn gang in the late 1950’s and after chronicling the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960’s spent two years documenting life in East 100th Street, an infamous block of tenements in East Harlem. For the East 100th Street project he used a large format camera and worked closely with the people he met to produce an intimate portrait of lives lived in grinding poverty.
To prepare for the subway, he dieted, followed a military fitness program and went jogging every morning; “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.”
In his introduction to Subway, Davidson describes how, as he went down the subway stairs and onto the station platform each morning, “a sinking sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack.” He found it reassuring to imagine himself as a hunter stalking his prey.
The tension on the subway made it hard to approach strangers and he had to act on impulse to break through this before he missed the opportunity. When he approached people, he would explain what he was doing, ask to take their photograph and offer to send them a print. If they hesitated, he would take out his photo album and show them some of his work.
Sometimes, he would photograph people without permission and then explain himself, hoping they wouldn’t mind. One day he photographed a businessman standing next to him on a busy rush hour train. When he apologised, the man said that he was legally blind and hadn’t seen the light from the flash.
Davidson was diligent about sending people their pictures. He once photographed an orthodox rabbi on a subway platform and later on a Latino couple in a passionate embrace. The two pictures somehow got mixed up and the rabbi sent the picture back. “I am a rabbi with a beard,” he said, “not a Puerto Rican couple half undressed.”
In the book, Davidson describes once having a knife held to his throat and his camera stolen. Ultimately this was a humbling experience for Davidson who found himself in the back of a Transit Authority police car as just another victim of mugging rather than the hunter he had imagined.
After being mugged three times, Davidson started accompanying undercover police as a decoy and sure enough, after a few days someone tried to rob him. This incident produced one of the outstanding images in the book, an explosive shot of an undercover cop holding a gun to the head of a cowering would-be mugger. Even when you understand the circumstances, it’s difficult not to feel a hint of sympathy for the mugger.
Davidson’s achievement owes a great deal to his decision to photograph in colour after initially starting the project in black and white. The vivid, highly saturated colours of Kodachrome combined with flash bouncing off steel surfaces produced a stark and uncompromising view of the subway, yet at the same time revealed a kind of murky, iridescent beauty that most people hadn’t noticed before. This together with Davidson’s willingness to collaborate and his obvious sensitivity towards his subjects gives Subway lasting impact and helps to explain its continuing popularity.
“I wanted to transform the subway from its dark, degrading, and impersonal reality into images that open up our experience again to the color, sensuality, and vitality of the individual souls that ride it each day.”
“I am a photographer in the way you might be a plumber. I like it that way.”
“He is one of the giants of postwar American photography, a veteran of the new wave of radical documentary pioneers who emerged in the early 1960s…” Sean O’Hagan (The Guardian, 2011)