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October 3, 2014

Grit, Grime and Graffiti: Amazing Photographs Captured Scenes of New York Subway in 1981

The New York subway system in the ‘80s was filthy, graffiti saturated and crime ridden, making photographs from this time period uniquely recognizable and visually spectacular.

Over a six-month period in 1981, 22-year-old Florida photographer named Christopher Morris, who was interning at New York photo agency Black Star, embedded himself in the world below, sometimes riding the trains alone, other times riding with the Guardian Angels volunteer anti-crime group. He’d hang out with groups of teens riding trains at night, and show up in the early morning to catch work-bound commuters.

“I was actually out looking for criminal elements, trying to prove myself as a photojournalist, and prove myself to myself,” he told TIME

Using Ektachrome film and a magenta filter to offset the florescent lights, Morris found interesting subjects in the relatively safe commuting space of midtown Manhattan, further north in the Bronx, and the eastern wilds of Brooklyn. He also happened to be working at approximately the same time as Bruce Davidson, a photographer who memorably chronicled 1980s subway life, and whom he admired greatly.

The images that emerged from his months-long project show subway cars being tagged, and stations covered in dirt and grime, but we also see commuters going about their business — reading newspapers, listening to music — beneath advertisements for vacation deals and aspirin.

Morris’ work provides a window on a long-gone New York, a metropolis that once pulsed with a very different energy — a frenetic, dangerous tone — than one feels in most of the city’s neighborhoods today. But even back then, as Morris’ pictures attest, Gotham remained an always fascinating and, at times, disarmingly beautiful place.


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