There is probably no other shared experience that defines life in New York City like riding the subway. Over one-third of the city’s population commutes to work in the tubes every day, and those who don’t still find subterranean transit inevitable or invaluable, or both.
The quality of that shared experience has largely followed the rise and fall of the city’s economy, with service improving in boom times and seriously degrading as the coffers dried up.
In 1975, New York City’s economy was in free fall. In October, President Ford refused to provide desperately needed federal funds, inspiring the infamous Daily News headline “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead”. Unemployment, crime and homelessness were out of control; frequent fires raged in The Bronx, parts of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan; and many began to fear the city might never recover.
That was the year Gerard Exupery started taking his iconic series of subway photos.
Gerard Exupery is one of those people who always has something to say. He has an uncanny talent for prying poetry out of the most banal of topics, inspiring you to look at them anew. This talent is even more evident in the visual realm, where, to this day he continues to amaze me with his ability to scan a scene and quickly locate magical compositions. On our many walks through the city, he has always managed to distill the chaos of life in New York down to concise, sometimes profound, but always original reflections on the human condition.
In our current, ominously post-fact era, it’s refreshing to lose oneself in these direct, raw observations of real life. In the tradition of Josef Koudelka, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Gerard Exupery transports us to a time and place we never knew (we old New Yorkers may have thought we did, but these photos make it clear that we weren’t paying attention) and might be glad we didn’t. But we can’t help being enriched by the experience.
This slice of life under New York City should be exhibited, collected, experienced and enjoyed. And remember, as the stickers in subway cars used to say: “La vía del tren subterráneo es peligroso”
Text excerpted from Gerard Exupery’s photobook “Subway 1975-1985” and is available for purchase here.