Sexy and scary photos from the 1980s in the NYC subway

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Introduction

New York, at the beginning of the 1980s. A gloomy urban sprawl between hedonism and abyss. The subway, in its dilapidated state, is a hazardous place. Fires in tunnels, muggings, murder and drug trafficking are the order of the day; overcrowded wagons, frequent delays, graffiti and dirt everywhere. The journey with public transport is a nightmare. The photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) boards the train, immerses himself in the raging, rattling hustle and bustle of the city and portraits the passengers between uniformity and diversity, anonymity and intimacy, depression and inspiration. Whether lovers, musicians, homeless people, tourists or business people – in the subway and its passengers he finds the perfect metaphor for life in the metropolis with its aggression and ugliness, its hope and humanity.

The importance of authenticity

Democratic and radically public – the subway provides Bruce Davidson with the ideal setting for his long-term urban reports. In this rolling prison everyone is visible to everyone. The passengers respond very differently to this exposed setting. While some hide and duck away timidly in the crowd, others pose unabashed and use the carriages and stations as stages for their self-portrayal. Even though Bruce Davidson does not photograph from a hidden perspective and usually respectfully asks for permission, nothing is staged in his pictures, every situation is authentic. The photographer is always a passenger, observing the scenario – hunting for the “decisive moment”. This creates a unique tension in his pictures – the persons portraited appear full of human dignity even in this inhumane, ruthless world.

Special preparations for shooting in the 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’s Subway photos

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

bruce-davidson-subway-1980-e
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

Bruce Davidson - Subway Series (New York)
Bruce DavidsonSubway, 1980

All images by Bruce Davidson/magnumphotos.com unless otherwise noted.

Videos

Bruce Davidson speaks about his Subway photos

3min 48sec

Bruce Davidson about his photography

6min 54sec

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