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Photographer Bruce Davidson tells the story of how his stunted endeavor in feature films sent him back to his “roots in still photography.” He grabbed his camera and took to the dimly lit and graffiti-strewn New York City subway cars, taking photos of riders, waiters, lovers, and more. The photos he uncovered have popped back up on sites like Imgur, so we put together this small selection of his photographs from 1980, which are featured in his book, Subway.

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The New York Review of Books has published part of Davidson’s introduction to the book, which gives some more insight about the context of the NYC subway system that he photographs. He says,

The subway interior was defaced with a secret handwriting that covered the walls, windows, and maps. I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every now and then, when I was looking at one of these cryptic messages, someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded…The connection was the subway.

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Every day Davidson loaded his heavy camera equipment into the subway tunnels in a way he explains made him feel “like a tourist—or a deranged person.” He focused on keeping his body in great shape in order to ward off any attracted muggers, and to be able to get out of there in a hurry and in one piece.

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The people he photographed amazed him. He learned quickly how hesitation could be his own demise: “There’s a barrier between people riding the subway—eyes are averted, a wall is set up. To break through this painful tension I had to act quickly, on impulse, for if I hesitated, my subject might get off at the next station and be lost forever.” Initially shooting in black and white, he learned how color photography added another dimension, especially to subjects that “demanded a color consciousness” to their meaning.

Here are a few more of his amazing photographs:

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We previously took you behind-the-scenes at the studio of Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey when Bruce Davidson presented his photography book Outside/Inside.

Here’s some more from our vintage photos series, but if you liked these subway shots, you should check out the top 10 subway art installations in NYC.

Get in touch with the author @uptownvoice.

1 Comment

  1. ellen says:

    The photo of the sax player– was he known as Galaxy 7????

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