NYC Subway, 1980

Bruce Davidson, 1980. All photos © Bruce Davidson.

Bruce Davidson, 1980. All photos © Bruce Davidson.

In 1980, photographer Bruce Davidson set out to document the New York City subway system with his camera. The subway system had experienced decades of disinvestment and neglect, and as the city fell into an economic crisis, the subway was left to further deteriorate. Davidson’s photos, focused primarily on the people on the trains or platforms, focusing on the wide array and diversity of straphangers. Today the photographs provide a vivid account of the New York City subway system at the pit of decay.

Davidson described his methodology and artistic intention for his 1980 subway series:

The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist—or a deranged person.

In transforming the grim, abusive, violent, and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of color, I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today. From all over the earth, people come into the subway. It’s a great social equalizer. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom, and we, trapped inside, all hang on together.
— Bruce Davidson