Subway

Photographs by Bruce Davidson.

Published by Aperture Foundation/Steidl, 3rd edition, 2011.

Reviewed by Tom Williams.

Subway was first published in 1986, six years after Bruce Davidson began photographing in New York City’s underground train system.  This revised third edition has been printed by Gerhard Steidl in collaboration with Aperture Foundation and contains twenty-five previously unpublished images.

Davidson descended into the subway, as Walker Evans had done in the 1930s, after a nascent film project stalled and he was drawn back to still photography.  Unlike Evans he did not hide his equipment: he prowled the various lines with camera and flash in hand.  The strobe would declare his presence brutally in an environment where people usually kept to themselves.  To overcome his fear he assumed the persona of a detective, or a hunter.  Initially shooting with black and white film, as he had with his famous projects Brooklyn Gang and East 100th Street, he quickly saw that the new undertaking demanded an exploration in colour.  This world offered a startling palette: the dense layers of tags and painted graffiti, the variegated hues of human skin, the bold and evolving pigments of fashion, the advertising signs struggling for prominence amongst the crowds.  All were concentrated and transformed by muted subterranean light and the photographer’s naked, artificial one.  In the essay that prefaces the book Davidson likens the sight of the flash-illuminated underground passengers to colour-saturated images of submarine life.

Walker Evans had operated in secret because the wanted to create unaffected portraits free from the contrivances that a photographer’s presence tends to elicit.  Davidson seems to have been energised by the confrontational nature of his method and he carved a hyper-real immediacy from the shadows with an intensity that was met with drama, personality, strangeness and beauty.  Davidson possesses an elusive gift:  people show themselves to him.  As viewers of images we can rarely fathom the inner worlds of conscious beings; but sometimes the photographer’s engagement with surfaces takes us beyond them – and, tantalisingly, deepens the mystery.

The making of the series spanned two American Presidencies (the twilight of Carter’s and the early Reagan administration), a recession, the explosion of hip-hop culture, the onset of Reaganomics; and unemployment levels that are only today being repeated.

The narrowness of its scope – photographing people in train carriages and on subway platforms – is also its rigour.  We see the similarities, the shared surrounds, the humanness that’s universal – and at the same time a trove of details and distinctions, which are amplified:  an elderly man in hat and tie (he’s blind, it turns out) appears lost in reverie.  A woman with brushed hair, dressed in fur, wears a hunted expression (the young twin towers can be glimpsed in the distance).  A girl in a yellow sports top carries a freshly cut rose.  All hang on tightly as they hurtle towards the next stop – and the next chapter.  We’re also privy to dramatic encounters:  a kid is caught off-guard as he adds his tag to the already ubiquitous morass of autographs on the metal walls.  In one of the most memorable images a dark-bearded man lies unconscious, Guevara-like, on platform tiles as medics attend to him. Tattooed on his bare chest are the words ‘Papi and Mami’.

The book design makes a virtue of simplicity.  There is no text on the cover, only a portrait of a young man in a dark carriage, his eyes obscured, a pair of gold crucifixes hanging around his neck.  Images on the inside are arranged in an order that echoes the random discoveries of the photographer, although great attention has been paid to the content, composition and colour use in facing pages.  Fresh scans were done for this edition and the images have an added clarity and faithfulness to the original film, deepening the thrill of returning to this work with fresh eyes.

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