Review from the Underground: Bruce Davidson’s Subway


For several months in 1980, photographer Bruce Davidson turned his lens on “a great social equalizer,” the New York City subway system. The project led to a critically lauded exhibition two years later at the International Center for Photography and, in 1986, an Aperture monograph. The latter, Subway, recently reissued by Steidl in collaboration with Aperture, remains a fascinating study thanks to Davidson’s streetwise humanism, familiar from his other anthropological New York books, Brooklyn Gang and East 100th Street. The power of these exposures is undiminished by time.

Davidson began shooting the project in black and white but soon switched to color, devising a compelling combination of dark shadows, gleaming skin and harsh fluorescent light, punctuated with the saturated artificial colors that are a  result of the flash. Even above ground, gloom prevails in these untitled images. Platforms are shadowy and ominous; on elevated tracks, vistas are dimly glimpsed through grimy windows. A few frames are laced with menace or suggest the presence of abjection—the desperate and the down-and-out are present and accounted for—but most express the languor and boredom of riders stoically confronting the necessity of going wherever it is they need to go.

As he recounts in an essay, Davidson, loaded with bulky equipment and dressed in safari gear, did not blend into his surroundings. He often requested his subjects’ permission before shooting, as Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand had before him, albeit less systematically than he did. Consequently, his trench-coated Wall Streeters, teenage girls with plucked eyebrows and glossy lips, and hard-working men universally face the camera impassively. Davidson embraced an observer’s paradox, allowing his presence to be reflected in his subjects.

The new edition of Subway includes 25 previously unpublished photos and Davidson’s and Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler’s texts from the original, and a reminiscence on the graffiti-limned era by rapper and former graffiti artist Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) that appeared in the 2003 St. Ann’s Press edition. A related exhibition, “Bruce Davidson: Subway,” is on view through Oct. 29 at Aperture Gallery in New York.

Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos.