Bruce Davidson and Daniel Arnold on NYC street photography, in 1980 and today
Daniel Arnold talks to T. Cole Rachel about street photography in The Creative Independent // Bruce Davidson recalls photographing the New York City’s subway system in 1980 in an essay taken from the introduction to Subway, found in the New York Review of Books
Daniel Arnold: It’s an expanding purpose because it gives me a reason to push myself and to go where I’m uncomfortable.
Bruce Davidson: As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and onto the darkened station platform, a sinking 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, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist-or a deranged person.
D.A: Most of the time when I decide I’m going to press the button and take the risk, I don’t necessarily have some specific vision of a composition or a beautiful photograph. It’s really an emotional reaction. A lot of the time there’s all this unintended miraculous stuff in a space where I just had this gut instinct, like, “The right things are here.” In a split second analysis there’s enough going on here that it’s worth firing into this area.
B.D: I had to act quickly, on impulse, for if I hesitated, my subject might get off at the next station and be lost forever.
D.A: I’ve had “the conversation” now so many times… the main thing is that I tell them the truth. I try to be very calm and honest that I have this fetish about New York and that you in this moment, with these city surroundings, just look like New York to me.
B.D: Often I would just approach the person: “Excuse me. I’m doing a book on the subway and would like to take a photograph of you. I’ll send you a print.”… Sometimes I’d take the picture, then apologize, explaining that the mood was so stunning I couldn’t break it, hoping they wouldn’t mind. There were times I would take the picture without saying anything at all. But even with this last approach, my flash made my presence known.
D.A: I was always looking for these weirdly quiet moments in chaos and emotional expression more than photographic expression.
B.D: People in the subway, their flesh juxtaposed against the graffiti, the penetrating effect of the strobe light itself, and even the hallow darkness of the tunnels, inspired an aesthetic that goes unnoticed by passengers who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks, and closed off from each other.
D.A: The processing and classification of heartfelt creative work makes it so hard to see what the work really is, which is the sustained effort of a person’s life…. I think that the fact that everybody can now do something doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to be said… You don’t need to make something beautiful and technical and perfect… If you can present a freewheeling, un-self-conscious view of your experience of the world then that’s what you have to offer, and that’s good… Otherwise you’re just rehearsing old ideas and, usually, other people’s ideas.
B.D: In transforming the grim, abusive, violent, and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of color, I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today. From all over the earth, people come into the subway. It’s a great social equalizer. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluoroscent light reaches into the stony gloom, and we, trapped inside, all hang on together.