Bruce Davidson’s series on the New York Subway in the 70’s is spectacular, I really wish I’d discovered it sooner…
I always consider when I started shooting people on the London Underground to be the single most important moment in my photography. Up until that point I had been taking pictures of Borough Market and general street work. The shot of the girl in headphones on the Victoria Line forever changed the way I shot people and brought be directly to where I am now, so it’s amazing that I had never came across Bruce Davidson’s Subway series.
Shot in the 1970’s when the New York Subway was covered in graffiti and was a significantly more dangerous place to travel, his work is visceral and exciting and you feel genuinely scared for his well being. Reading the introduction to his book and listening to him talk you realise that it was through his calm and measured manner that he achieved the shots he did.
Most of the time he asked permission before he took a picture, showing them a wedding album full of prints, with only odd occasions where he would shoot before speaking to them. Even then, he would speak to them afterwards and explain what his project was about. Travelling long distances, and often during the night, it’s amazing he only got mugged a couple of times, and even that didn’t put him off.
It raises two issues for me. Firstly, my desire to shoot on the Subway myself. How can I bring something different when this iconic work has clearly achieved everything it set out to do with the Subway of the 1970’s? Today it is a very different place. Dramatically cleaned up, it is a much safer place to be, so finding an angle on how to represent it would be a challenge.
Secondly, it poses the question - would I change my approach? I currently shoot on the streets of New York while I listen to music and never speak to the people I take pictures of. On the bustling streets this isn’t an issue but on the small crowded subway cars I really don’t know if this is an approach I can take.
It’s been something I have considered for a long time. There is even a course at ICP about street portraiture which tackles the issues regarding approaching people and asking to take their picture. I’ve always thought that the way I shoot is deeply ingrained in who I am, my work, and the comment I’m making, so to turn that on it’s head is scary.