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