Going underground with Bruce Davidson’s photo collection Subway

Article by Minette Paes in Berlin, Wednesday, April 11, 2012

“I wanted to transform the subway from its dark, degrading, and impersonal reality into images that open up our experience again to the colour, sensuality, and vitality of the individual souls that ride it each day.” – Bruce Davidson, Subway.

Bruce Davidson’s beautifully slick photograph collection, Subway, unveils the hedonism and chaos ruling New York’s subway in the 1980s. Notorious for violence and crime at the time, the subway was a haven for drug trafficking, murders and muggings.

Davidson, originally hailing from Illinois and one of America’s most influential documentary photographers, was fascinated with urban life in New York. He began his project for Subway by boarding the train in New York and immersing himself in the clattering hustle and bustle of the metropolis, armed with his camera and notebooks. Davidson recalls the atmosphere of fear and dread, “As I went down the subway stairs… and on to the darkened station platform, a sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night… ” .

By using an extreme wide-angle lens and utilising bright light and vivid colour to accentuate his subjects, Davidson showcases the grit as well as beauty of New York’s dark underworld. He spoke of working on the impulse of the moment- aiming to engage with his subject before they assumed their subway expression- eyes averted and face, expressionless. His aim was to break down that barrier and capture the essence of their character and his photographs are testimony to that. As a result, he didn’t always ask permission before taking the photograph. From businessmen and lovers, to junkies and tourists, his photographs display a wonderful melting pot of different social and cultural backgrounds on the subway. While originally beginning his project in black and white, Davidson fortunately switched to colour, as he believed his photographs should reflect the dark shadows, different skin tones and neon light in the city.

CO Berlin, the International Forum for Dialogues in Mitte is an impressive venue to showcase Davidson’s collection. However, lining all of his photographs along the same level around a large, high ceilinged room makes them appear small and insignificant. A smaller, more intimate set up would have been much more appropriate for Subway, and more engaging for the audience too.

Every city has a dark side and Davidson effectively unearths beauty in the grit and grime of urban living in Subway. Put simply, in his own words- “When you are in the Subway, what is beautiful appears bestial, and what is bestial appears beautiful”.


Additional Information

Exhibition: Mar. 17 – May 20, 2012
Oranienburger Straße 35/36 (click here for map)

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