Subway

“It’s easy to prettify a nation at an airport, but trains show you a place with its pants down.”
Paul Theroux

Many years ago on a campsite in Byron Bay, Australia I had a life changing experience. Someone gave me a copy of Paul Theroux’s classic The Great Railway Bazaar, describing his non-stop journey from London, around the world and back again, all undertaken using the international train network. It was the book that established him as a serious writer and is widely credited with reinventing the travel genre. It also inspired me and countless other travellers to think of the journey as the end in itself with the final destination more the place you just hop on the plane back home again.

Since my time in Oz and my exposure to that particular book, I spent many years working for London Underground. I’ve also undertaken a few epic train journeys of my own. In the past year alone I spent two months travelling from London to Pakistan and six weeks travelling around the crumbling Burmese train network. It’s fair to say therefore that trains have been a big part of my life and that I like them, a lot.

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All images © Bruce Davidson.

I collect photography books and have a small but growing collection portraying life on some of the world’s metro systems. You can imagine my pleasure therefore when on a late-night visit to the Tate Modern a few weeks ago I walked into Room 8 of the State of Flux gallery and discovered the newly acquired Bruce Davidson Subway series hanging on the wall. The photos (taken from his book of the same name) are of the people who inhabited and travelled on the New York Metro system in 1980/81 when it was a dark and dangerous place – you know, back in the days of the Guardian Angels. This body of work is one my absolute favourites and 30 years after it was originally produced it seems to get better and better.

Shot on Canon T90s using Kodachrome 64 film with fill-in flash, the project was primarily a collaborative effort where he approached strangers asking if he could take their portrait, pulling from his bag a sample of previous images to help explain things more clearly. This of course led to numerous intriguing interactions and side-adventures some of which he describes in the book’s afterword.

He often worked using a magenta filter which when combined with flash bounced off the train carriage’s metallic ceilings, giving the images a strange underwater iridescence exacerbated by the high saturation film. The images portray unbelievable scenes of stop motion, flickering moments from the surging flow of life in the underworld of 80s New York that seems almost fictitious in its aesthetic. Moments of despair, tenderness, danger, pity, and beauty – they’re all here, along with a colour pallet and compositional style that went on to inspire a whole generation of photographers, including the likes of Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey.

Prior to commencing the project, Davidson undertook a military fitness regime and crash weight loss programme, conditioning himself as the hunter who “felt like he could become the mugger before he mugged me.” As it happens, he was mugged on a few occasions but he carried on regardless producing one of the finest bodies of social documentary work in the history of photography. I advise anyone who is able to take a trip to the Tate Modern to check out these truly great images.

It’s probably also interesting to post here a few photos by a couple of other photographers who’ve taken on the New York Metro system. Firstly, Walker Evans, who in 1938 produced a body of work called Many are Called. These photos were taken surreptitiously on a Contax camera concealed under his coat. A sad look at daily life in the city, they depict “NYC’s unknowing life soldiers wrapped in their own mind.” The images represent something unique to the individual subject but universal to the urban dweller: the intense loneliness of the quiet mind and the futile search for anonymity inside the citizenry of the mega-metropolis. They were not released until almost 30 years after they were taken and have subsequently been exhibited worldwide, residing in the collections of many of the world’s top modern art museums.

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All images © Walker Evans.

Secondly, Christophe Agou’s Life Below series taken between 1997-2000. These images were shot without flash on Agfa black and white slide film in a classic Leica style using extreme wide-angle lenses. Taken almost 20 years after Davidson’s work it’s amazing to see how much New York changed in such a short period of time. More stylised than Subway or Many Are Called these are nevertheless great images that often resemble film stills, such is Agou’s superb sense of timing, fine use of light and differential focus. A book I strongly recommend checking out.

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All images © Christophe Agou.

UPDATE 1: I’ve just remembered this from the New York Times last year about the NYC subway.
UPDATE 2: See a video of Bruce Davidson talking about his work here.
UPDATE 3: The Sunday Times of 250911 have just ran a 4 page article on Subway, announcing that it has been republished by Steidl. You can download a PDF of the article
here.

6 Comments

  1. Roman February 7, 2011 at 17:34 #

    Inspiring trainesque Craig!

    Thoughtfully chosen pics and ideas brought closer.

    I love these unpredictable but lively train journeys when homely and alien feelings interchange in glorious joy.

    Wish I rail-meditate anywhere. To steam spirit again!

  2. Paul January 5, 2011 at 14:53 #

    Wise words and wicked pictures.

    Having only owned one car in my life, traveling on trains is a time well spent. But I’m not a spotter!
    I’ll never forget a 33 hour train journey from Margao in Goa, via Mumbai, through the amazing Rajasthan desert and mountains, to reach beautiful Udaipor.
    (Second class is the only way to travel!)
    Hanging out the open doors, with fag hanging out of mouth, watching the jaw-dropping scenery, waiting to stop to capture moments on film.
    Although inside there was plenty of material.
    More…

  3. Neil Bridgland January 4, 2011 at 07:20 #

    Great pictures – really capture an era – thanks Craig.
    I love trains too – just not the commuter ones that I spend too much time on these days!
    Best journey I ever took was the Tazara Railway from Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.
    2 days on the train rolling slowly though the mountains highlands and plains.
    Really felt liked you’d arrived somewhere and already knew a place after 2 days staring out the window and dealing with the locals.
    I look forward to more such journeys as I get older and have more time for ‘slow’ travel.

    • ritchiecraig January 4, 2011 at 07:51 #

      Thanks Neil,
      I wonder if that train is still running?
      In reverse to the route you took, might be a good way of travelling to Kafue?
      When did you take that trip and did you get any photos!?
      All best,
      Craig

  4. ritchiecraig January 3, 2011 at 22:21 #

    Thanks Brian!
    Sounds interesting.
    I’ll try and find that (I’ve already looked it up).
    Hope to ride the NZ rails soon!
    All best,
    Craig

  5. Brian January 3, 2011 at 22:06 #

    Howzit Craig, interesting and masterfully captured. Track down the dvd collection “Off the rails”, by Marcus Lush, a kiwi radio host, its a look back at the now defunct kiwi rail network.
    Who knows, it may inspire you to visit us down in the deep south…
    Cheers, Brian.

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