Over at the New York Review of Books, here’s Bruce Davidson on taking pictures on the Iron Horse in the early ’80s:
In the spring of 1980, I began to photograph the New York subway system. Before beginning this project, I was devoting most of my time to commissioned assignments and to writing and producing a feature film based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Enemies, A Love Story. When the final option expired on the film, I felt the need to return to my still photography—to my 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evening rush hour, I would see the packed cars of the subway as cattle cars, filled with people, each face staring or withdrawn with the fear of its unknown destiny.
Dig the book, a cherce holiday gift.
Oh, hell, and while we’re at it:
I remember waiting for the subway once with my grandfather. 81st Street, Museum of Natural History stop. He walked to the edge of the platform and leaned over to see if a train was coming. That image is frozen in my mind. He was not a physical man and I was convinced he would tip over and fall over, down to the tracks. He didn’t. When the train came, we got on and an older guy kept looking at me and I thought he was going to mug us.
Mug. That was a word that was always on my mind as a kid in New York. I don’t hear it so much anymore. Not “jack” or “rob.” Mug. Whenever I was on the subway I’d try to guess who would mug me and how I could escape.
[Photo Credit: Bruce Davidson]