Subway - Photographs by Bruce Davidson
Texts by Fred Braitwhite (aka Fab 5 Freddy), Bruce Davidson, and Henry Geldzahler.
Aperture, $65.00 (144p)
This worthwhile third edition of Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson’s classic series of images of New York City subway riders - including 25 never-before-published photos - feels as artistically fresh as it did when first released in 1986. By thoroughly delving into a specific time and place, Davidson (East 100th Street and Brooklyn Gangs) achieves intimacy and depth. He captures riders from all walks of life on the graffiti-covered elevated platforms, underground stations, and subway cars of a transportation system that would be almost unrecognizable to current riders. As artist and filmmaker Fab 5 Freddy explains in his introductory essay, early ‘80s New York City was an era of economic strain, tenuous race relations, pervasive fear of crime, and Bernard Goetz’s vigilante justice. At the same time, the city saw the explosive birth of major movements in street art including hip hop, break dance, and graffiti.
Although many of Davidson’s most iconic images are in black and white, the vivid and lushly toned shots in this series illustrate his mastery of color as well. Using a strobe in almost every shot, he achieves well-lit skins in his portraits of riders, while still balancing out the garish yet beautiful colors of graffiti which usually form the backdrop to his subjects. His skilled eye produces shots that range from graphically simple to compositionally complex. Compare the spare elegance of lovers hugging against a yellow banister to Davidson’s dynamic juggling of multiple shapes and colors in a shot of an orange-clad man lounging on a bright blue seat next to graffiti-covered subway doors. In the latter photo, a close look reveals that Davidson’s wide depth of field also encompasses a distant street scene through the subway car window.
Like Walker Evans before him, Davidson found a whole universe within the New York subway system. From criminals and cops, to half-naked vagrants, to macho youths, tired commuters, and windblown women, Davidson captures a spectrum of New Yorkers. Each image is arresting unto itself, and when taken as a whole, the series functions as a revelatory time capsule.
Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co.
Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC