BRUCE DAVIDSON: NEW YORK'S SUBWAY SYSTEM IN THE 1980S

Bruce Davidson's vivid exploration of New York's subway system in the 1980s is an epoch-defining series that marked the photographer's shift from black and white to color.

By Balthazar Malevolent

BRUCE DAVIDSON: NEW YORK'S SUBWAY SYSTEM IN THE 1980S

“If I am looking for a story at all, it is in my relationship to the subject — the story that tells me, rather than that I tell” writes Bruce Davidson, who was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame on November 1, 2019.

The photographer’s critically acclaimed photo essay and book project, Subway, was “a voyage of discovery” for the American photographer; the result of half a decade spent exploring the ominous reaches of the subway system in the 1980s. Both a captivating study of light and color and a historical document of an elemental part of New York, Subway captures the many faces of the underbelly of this city.

The photographer’s descent into the city’s famed transit system followed a period of broader exploration in New York. After a spell of work as a producer on a movie, Davidson – as he writes in Subway‘s introductory text – felt a need to return to stills, to his roots:

“I began to photograph the traffic islands that line Broadway. These oases of grass, trees, and earth surrounded by heavy city traffic have always interested me. I found myself photographing the lonely widows, vagrant winos, and solemn old men who line the benches on these concrete islands of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

I traveled to other parts of the city, from Coney Island to the Bronx Zoo. I revisited the Lower East Side cafeteria where I’d photographed several years before… The cafeteria was a haven for the elderly Jewish people surviving the decaying nearby neighborhoods. I photographed the people I had known there, survivors from the war and the death camps who had clung together after the Holocaust to re-root themselves in this strange land. I walked along Essex Street to visit an old scribe who repaired faded Hebrew characters on sacred Torah scrolls. He and his wife, both survivors of Dachau, worked together in their small religious bookstore. Occasionally, he’d allow me to take a photograph as he bent over the parchment with his pen. When the flash went off, he would wave me away. I would return later with prints that he put into a drawer, carefully, without looking at them. Sometimes, returning from his shop during the evening rush hour, I would see the packed cars of the subway as cattle cars, filled with people, each face staring or withdrawn with the fear of its unknown destiny.

The subway interior was defaced with a secret handwriting that covered the walls, windows, and maps. I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every now and then, when I was looking at one of these cryptic messages, someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded. I started to draw a connection between the Broadway islands, the neighborhood cafeteria, and the pious scribe on the Lower East Side.

The connection was the subway.”

Material taken from Magnum Photos website.

Bruce Davidson

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