It’s difficult to reconstruct for a typical member of the NYU’s Class of 2019 just how fucked up the NYC subways were in the 1970s and 1980s—indeed, much of Manhattan was an undisguised war zone. Sure, many have “heard” about this on some level, but when you’re perambulating through today’s clean and spacious Union Square station, you’re not likely to be reminded of Bernie Goetz, are you?
Bernhard Goetz made national headlines when (almost certainly as an entirely calculated act) he blew away four would-be muggers on the downtown 2 line in December of 1984. The white Goetz was held up as a national hero because he “fearlessly” entered the dangerous NYC subway system and seriously wounded a quartet of black guys with malice aforethought. The word vigilante was suddenly on everyone’s lips; Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels were a related icon of the time. The Clash even sang about them.
All of this is to explain why, when he decided to commence a project of documenting the city’s subway, photographer Bruce Davidson felt the need to outfit himself as if he were about to go into battle, complete with brass knuckles, a jackknife, pepper spray, combat boots, and an army jacket. That’s just what you did then! Davidson’s pictures eventually became the landmark book Subway.
Late last year saw the publication of a book that can honorably be placed alongside Davidson’s—I refer to Willy Spiller’s Hell on Wheels, which includes the Swiss photographer’s subway-related output from the 1977-1984 period. Sturm & Drang Press brought out the book last year in a limited edition; they promptly sold out, which means that prices for the volume have become rather inflated.
These photos are a reminder of an era when two art forms were finding their footing in the city—that is to say, graffiti and hip-hop. The relative lack of a bourgeois and “safe” culture on the subways meant that the outlaw accoutrements of aerosol cans and boom boxes were permitted free rein.
And yet, these pictures do not actually document violence or really anything dangerous. Many of the photos seem like they were taken during the sultry summer, and (as is always the case in New York) you have dissimilar people seated side by side and (in many instances) enjoying the environment for the opportunities it provided to lounge and chat and people-watch.
As Tobia Bezzola has written of Spiller’s subway photographs,
His charming chutzpah is the root of the extraordinary quality of these photographs. It seems only logical that this wildly colourful underground performance appeared highly exotic, fantastic and often bizarre to the eyes of this young greenhorn just arrived from the innocent city of Zürich, Switzerland.
Anyone who finds our sanitized world dispiriting will surely find succor in these vivid and interesting pictures.