Last night I was waiting on the uptown platform at 103rd Street. There was a kid playing the guitar across the tracks and at first I didn’t notice him but then I couldn’t help but listen. He wasn’t playing a song just jamming. I waited for him to finish so that I could applaud. He was good. But he didn’t stop. So I saw that my train wasn’t coming yet and ran up the stairs, crossed over to the other side, ran down the stairs and threw a dollar in the kid’s guitar case.
“You are doing work,” I said.
When I got back to the uptown platform I was able to capture this just before my train rolled into the station.
Guy on the train next to me this morning. Paper folded the old-fashioned way. Don’t see that much anymore. Like my grandfather used to do. I asked him who taught him how to fold the paper that way and he said, “My father.”
He sounded apologetic. “It’s just the way I do it.”
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.