Underground, an hidden and dark world populated by trains and people, an expanding contemporary reality in big cities. I live in Rome where underground is still small and inefficient but writing this article I’m thinking to other metropolis like Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, New York… Subway is at the same time a sort of interesting and fascinating labyrinth. It has been represented many times in different form of art. In this blog post I’ll analyze the interpretation of underground as physical and social space in street photography, street art and cinema. Personally I don’t feel comfortable shooting in metro. Maybe because it is not allowed by the law or because is closed, small and dark. But obviously as street photographer I’ve taken photos in underground. As usual I like to be inspired by other artists’ works. Below I’ll show you my inspirations about Underground in street photography, street art and cinema.
Underground: street photography
Doing street photography in underground is a must. The association between the two things is so obvious and spontaneous that sometimes it may seem trivial. As usual the way you do something is the key. It’s important to give your personal point of view and interpretation. I’ve posted here three books by three different photographers. Absolutely they are my favorite ones when I think about street photography in underground. I hope you’ll agree with me after reading this article.
First one is probably the most famous book about street photography in underground. It’s a must have for every photographers. I’m talking about Subway by Bruce Davidson. The book is the result of half decade spent in New York’s subway in 1980s. Each day Bruce Davidson woke up early in the morning, he picked-up his camera with flash going to photograph for the whole day in underground. He carried a photo album with him to show people what he was really doing with a camera and a flash in subway. This is a very clever approach to avoid problems with strangers. Inside book there is an interesting description made by the author about his hard work: he talks about his routine in subway.
Book is in color, many pictures are taken with flashlight. Subway “painted” by Bruce Davidson is dark, cinic, cruel, dirty, noisy and claustrophobic. His flash is like a lightning that pierces the darkness creating a beautiful contrast with shadows and black graffiti. He took photos of angry, scary and also thoughtful people; sometimes they smile too but in general they don’t seem friendly and comfortable with the photographer. Subjects are heterogeneous: friends, lovers, workers, homeless, policemen, white and black men, childs, adults. Subway is the mirror of modern urban society.
Bruce Davidson took also candid portrait with people posing like the famous one with a scarface. Wagons are full of black graffiti, in a couple of photos you can see also Keith Haring’s artworks. In the outdoor sections of subway Davidson photographed also outside the windows to show different views of New York from the train. Courage and dedication are the keys of this work; Davidson spent several days and different years in this project, not simply a weekend. You can still find the book to buy, it’s 135 pages in hardcover in an awesome square format. I repeat, it’s a must have in your library!
Now take a look to a different work, Underground: Travels on the global metro by Marco Pesaresi. This is book was published more recently, it isn’t a cult as the Davidson’s one. The approach is totally different; Marco Pesaresi worked for Contrasto agency and he took photos all around the world trying to give his personal point of view about life and society. Book is divided in chapters, each one is a different city with a short introduction (New York, Moscow, Madrid, Tokyo…). Marco Pesaresi had a wonderful style and vision; his photography is poetic and romantic, he loved people. While in Bruce Davidson’s work the main color is black in Underground by Pesaresi is red. Thanks to his smiling approach people seem to be more comfortable and friendly in pictures. He shows the heterogeneity and complexity of society in subway, with particular preference for lovers. But he took pictures also of homeless, poor men, workers… He photographed mostly outside trains, in stations. Underground: Travels on the global metro by Marco Pesaresi is a book of 125 pages, big size and hardcover. Preface is by the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola. Unfortunately this book is out of stock but you can still find it used for about 70-90 euros.
The last book I present here is probably the cherry on top. Unfortunatly it is out of stock everywhere so if you want it you have to pay a lot of money also for used copies. I’m talking about Bob mazzer’s Underground. This book totally sold out has 192 pages and hardcover. Bob Mazzer worked as projectionist in a porn cinema in King’s Cross, London. He moved everyday using subway, so he started taking photos.
Every day I travelled to King’s Cross and back. Coming home late at night, it was like a party and I felt like the tube was mine and I was there to take the pictures. One day, I looked over my recent photographs and there were a dozen connected images, and I realized it was the beginning of something.
Book starts with pictures taken outside. Then we find photos taken on the escalators, stations and finally inside trains. It’s like we’re walking with Bob Mazzer taking photos and entering step by step inside subway with him. Photos are really human and exciting, organized by different kind of subjects and scenes. There is for example the series of lovers, the one with group of boys, sleeping people, candid and posed portraits… Book has both color and black/white images put together. He don’t tell anything about his method and work inside book, there are only few comments for some pictures.
I close the first part of this article with a bonus for you. Do you know that before becoming a famous movie director Stanley Kubrick was a street photographer? He made reportage for magazines, that’s was is primary job. He took photos also in underground but great part of this shots are posed, not spontaneous, with actors. It’s not street photography but images are equally awesome and great to watch. Compositions and moment are perfect and timeless, some pictures looks like movie frames. Take a look.
Underground: street art and graffiti
First manifestations of urban street art born in 60-70s in New York city. Some guys from the Bronx started to write with markers their name followed by a number (usually the street or address where they lived): Papo 184, Cloud 160, Sjk 171… The idea behind this “phenomenon” was probably to give importance to themselves. Is not by chance that this “art” born in poverty. Of course it was illegal. They started to do this in subway, inside and outside wagons. They wrote their name over wagons to reach the whole New York city when trains moved. This first “form of art” is called also “writing”, while the written name is the “tag”. The New York Times newspaper dedicated an entire article to the art of writing in early ’70s. Graffiti are an artistic and stylistic evolution of this “primitive form”. They born in ’70s, with different exponents like Seen (The Godfather of Graffiti), Lee, Dondi, Duster, Lady Pink and many others… You can appreciate a lot of tags and graffiti in pictures taken by Bruce Davidson in his Subway book. If you are interested I’ve linked here a nice and famous documentary about urban graffiti, Style Wars (1983). If you are interested in books I suggest you to buy a sort of Bible of urban graffiti: Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant (images below).
The two fathers of modern street art are probably Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m more interested in the first one; he started to draw in subway, inside wagons and in stations. He used a plaster over black surfaces next to billboards. When he became more famous people started “to steal” this works of art made in subway. He was fast in drawing to avoid security and the jail. In Bruce Davidson’s book there are almost a couple of photos in which you can see Haring’s works in the background. So he started in subway before reaching the surface of the city when he became famous.
Street art born in the darkness of subway but after few years it reached surface…
Let me change kind of art talking always about underground. Obviously this “magic place” is represented also in cinema. In this article I mentioned two films as examples. First one is representative, it is The Incident, a neo-noir thriller dated 1967 of about 100 minutes set in a train wagon of New York city. I absolutely suggest you to watch it. In the movie we can recognize a really young Martin Sheen (very famous for Apocalypse Now) as one of the main character. Movie is in B/W and it shows a particular situation in a wagon train at night in NYC. People are heterogenous: different races, old and young persons, there is also an homeless used more like an object, a drank man, a small family, two militaries, a homosexual man, and two thugs that are the centre of the scene. These two boys are ruffian and for the whole story they provoke and try to scare the other passengers in the wagon making psychological violence. The film is about courage vs fear, selfishness vs altruism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, rage, hate, difference… It is a reflex of society in a wagon train. In such way it’s also a metaphor of Hobbes’ homo homini lupus. Thinking to books I have presented here I can say that the atmosphere is more similar to Bruce Davidson’s Underground. Subway is dark, cinic, cruel, insidious and dangerous.
There is another movie with a small sequence set in subway. I’m talking about the new Joker (2019) directed by Todd Phillips with Joaquin Phoenix as main character; he won an Oscar for best actor this year. As I said there is a small part in which Arthur Fletcher is in metro dressed as clown and he is mocked and hit by three thugs. Scene is an ascending climax of emotions: it starts in laughs and end in mad rage and violence. Not only awesome acting but also great cinematography and soundtrack with an explosion of awesome colors. It is probably my favorite sequence of Joker film, a piece of pure cinema and this is the reason why I mentioned here this movie. Also in that case underground is associated to violence and danger.
My personal view: Underground
At the end of the article it’s my turn, but this is not the cherry on top. I’ve different photos taken in subway but, probably for a psychological status, usually I avoid to do this. In fact I don’t have a great number of pictures taken in underground; Usually I use smartphone to be more discrete. However I post here my best views of that magic place. Images are taken in Rome, Saint Petersburg, New York and Budapest.
That’s all folks
Stay well, have always light in your life
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