It’s hard to exaggerate the state of New York City in 1979. I remember the emptiness of the streets at night, the constant whoop-whoop of sirens and the almost hyperbolically anxiety-inducing 4am subway journeys. It was the underground Hellopolis of The Warriors, the subway-set gang movie that also came out in 1979. Subway stations were a set designer’s idea of a modern urban Styx. The subway cars were covered with elaborate graffiti. Inside, every surface was spray-canned with young men’s tags.
The great Magnum (and Manhattan) photographer Bruce Davidson captured those extraordinary surfaces forever, in rich, deep Kodachrome 64, in his book Subway. However horrid, violent and intrusive the graffiti might have been, Davidson found a certain strange beauty in it. I talked to him about his pictures some thirty years later. “If people asked me what I was doing,” he said, “I told them I was recording the state the subway was in. What I didn’t tell them was that I saw the subway as both beauty and beast. Some things that were horrible were beautiful and some things that would be thought beautiful were banal.”
© Peter Silverton 2022
*This is an extract from the book London Calling, New York, New York by Peter Silverton to be published in 2023.