Until I stumbled across Subway during an Aperture sale, I only knew Bruce Davidson for… Turns out, I had Bruce Davidson confused with Bruce Gilden and I almost scrolled right past, but I’m glad I checked it out (and bought a copy), as it’s quite something.
Bruce Davidson is a generation older than Bruce Gilden…* Born in 1933, Davidson was drafted into the Army, did a bit of shooting for the Army newspaper, became a full time Army photographer, got out, joined Magnum, and started working. He met up with some juvenile gang members, the Jokers, and spent 11 months photographing them for Brooklyn Gang. He photographed the Freedom Riders, became an instructor at the SVA, worked commissions for Vogue and Esquire, worked as part of the White House Photography Program (headed up by John Szarkowski). In the late 1960s, he spent a couple of years photographing part of Harlem for East 100th Street, with a view camera of all things, and by the time he undertook the work for Subway, he was well versed in photographing strangers, getting releases from them, and acting like a pro photographer.
So when it came down to shooting in the subway, he carried a full strobe with battery pack under his coat and got after it. He rode the rails all over, back and forth, night and day, for several years. According to his introduction, he “became addicted to the subway,”** and what he speaks of sounds pretty much the same as what I read from the graffiti writers of the period, whose work pretty much crushes nearly every visible surface. And the flash popping against the various skin tones and clothes, and illuminating the script-covered steel, makes for some beautiful, and beautifully moody, color photography.
Speaking of introductions, Fred Braithwaite contributes a brief essay from the point of view of one of the graffiti writers and contributes a line that expresses pretty close to exactly what I feel about the book. “Thank you Bruce Davidson. Your photos bring me back to a New York subway ride I’ll never take again, but one as alive as if I had just stepped off the A train…”*** Change that to “take me on” and “I was too late to catch,” and that’s pretty much how I feel about this wonderful book.
Subway hasn’t been out of print, as far as I can tell. My version is the third or fourth printing of Aperture’s expanded third edition, which remains available for a reasonable price. If you’re not convinced by my (blessedly?) short review, T. Hopper has a great video review of it that you should go watch (and subscribe to her channel, and mine, while you’re at it: good stuff (at both!)). And hunt around. Subway is a classic photobook for a good reason, and if ou have any interest in photobooks or graffiti or the NYC subway or just good photography, it should be part of your collection.
*I took the biographical stuff from Wikipedia, accessed 14 July 2021.
** Davidson, Bruce. “Train of Thought,” in Subway. Aperture, New York, 2014. p. 12
*** Braithwaite, Fred (Fab 5 Freddy). “Bruce Davidson’s Subway” in Bruce Davidson, Subway. Aperture, New York, 2014. p 7