Back In The Day – The New York City Subway In All Its Former Glory

Back In The Day – The New York City Subway In All Its Former Glory

In 1985 there were approximately 40 recorded felonies on the New York City subway system. Every single day. It's a wonder how young photographer Chris Morris mustered the courage to set off on to the mean (subterranean) streets and begin months of personal project work documenting the New York subway. Let's take a walk on the wild side and go back in time and check out these previously unpublished images. 

When was the last time you undertook a personal project that could easily have resulted in all of your gear being stolen at best, or possibly being seriously injured or even killed? Chris Morris could easily have come up against either one of these options when he took to the New York City subway system in the 1980s to capture it’s grit and grime. Fortunately all was fine and he came away with a classic, historic document of just how crazy riding around the New York subway system used to be.

Then a young 22 year old photographer, Morris took to the subway system, sometimes riding alone, sometimes with the Guardian Angels (a group set up to protect the citizens of the subway). His work reminds us of an almost forgotten era of what New York used to look like and represent before it was cleaned up.

Chris, a founding member of the VII Photo Agency, both a renowned and critically acclaimed photojournalist who contracts for TIME and an accomplished fashion photographer, used a combination of ektachrome film and a magenta filter to offset the intense fluorescent lights he was having to deal with in the subway system.

Although inevitable comparisons can be drawn between his project and the work of Bruce Davidson from Magnum who completed a seminal project entitled “Subway", itself a wonderful study of the subway system,  I feel Chris’s work captured the very essence of the era and underground subway madness in all it's "glory" beautifully and in a unique way, different from the vision Davidson had for his series.

If you travel on the subway today, you might think it’s dirty and grimy but it’s positively a bastion of cleanliness compared to what it used to look like. The amazing thing about these images is it shows just how quickly times have changed. It’s a great testament to not only the power of photography to freeze an individual moment or split second, but it's ability to chronicle a time span that could cover months or years and to transplant us back there in the blink of an eye and remind us of what the past used to look and feel like.















Special Thanks & All Images Credit / Copyright [Christopher Morris] and [VII Photo Agency]

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A transitory Keith Haring original on a subway wall. Different time. It's unfortunate that in order to "clean up" and "rebuild" New York, the very essence of the city was sterilized right out of it.

David Geffin's picture

I was wondering if anyone was going to comment on that, good eyes SB! Yeah it's tough - the place sure is safer, but at what cost? Still it's nice to know that i can pretty much ride the subway from Hell's Kitchen at 4am after shooting in the club and get all the way out to Brooklyn and not have to worry TOO much about getting jumped for my gear.

I was in my late 20s-early 30s during the 80s. I'd see Keith's work everywhere. I used to go to club uptown called Hurrah! on 62nd off Central Park West and a bunch of his work went up the black-painted stairway that led up to the club. After it closed down I went back to the building and the club space was then a Learning Annex outlet. The stairways had been painted white. Just think, if that building is still there, there's a treasure trove of his work "buried" there. It would be like an anthropological excavation to extract it!

David Geffin's picture

SB that is a sick old school NYC story! Does anyone know of a chemical process to remove individual paint layers? I'm only partly joking.

I think there are ways, but I can't imagine who would foot the costs. Most of Haring's work is essentially water under the bridge, as he just ad-libbed anywhere, as you saw in that subway shot. I'd say the vast majority of his work was transitory.

The station at 168th still looks like that. And thank god they got cleaned up...riding in a car like that is gross. I just see that as vandalism not art. If you really want to express yourself thru graffiti there are better places than a subway train

David Geffin's picture

I need to get up to 168 and see, i haven't been up there yet since moving here. Yeah tagging isn't really my thing either, but I do kind of still wish people were putting big throw up pieces of the outside of cars.

168th street is being renovated. I was very sad to see all the tiles had been removed the last time I was up there.

your on a photo site bashing 80's graffiti artist... toys

Tagging the inside of a subway car is not art. I can bash you for your poor grammar if you wish lol

i guess you can teach me English and i can teach you about Art

Christopher McRae's picture

Beautiful Pictures. Who doesn't love the nostalgia trip into the 80's every now and I right!

David Geffin's picture

If you're asking if you can get an amen, then "AMEN BROTHER McRAE, AMEN!"

Christopher McRae's picture

Love it!

Love this post. The stations were mostly cleaned up and are generally safer. There are some that still look this way (Bowery). Anyone up for a Subway photowalk?

David Geffin's picture

Manny hit me up and let's organize! info at davidgeffin dot com

You have mail sir!

David Geffin's picture

nothing through yet Manny...

Having Godaddy email issues apparently. I sent you a message via Gmail.

Sean Shimmel's picture

In our current era obsessed with clarity sliders and stabilized, nano-coated glass it's refreshing to see 1980's image softness and know that their content still matters and whose looks are being mimicked with plugins.

David Geffin's picture


Sean Shimmel's picture

Thank you (but... ahem... I'm a brother)

Shooting in the 80's, or with film in general, doesn't mean you get a "softer" look. I shot this back in 1980, does it look soft to you?

Sean Shimmel's picture

NO it does not. Sharp and punchy indeed.

But the subway photos in the initial post do have the charm of softness.

And many of the film emulation plugins, presets and actions tout the "softer" look of film in general and of an earlier era.

Which is utterly stupid, and says a lot about the software developers. ;-) You're actually looking at a second generation copy that I made on 8x10 Ektachrome duplicating stock from my original 35mm Kodachrome 25 transparency, which I can't find. I scanned that on a large format Epson scanner. And talk about Nano-coated anything, I shot that using a Nikon F2SB with a single-coated 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor S optic dating back to ~1965.

I wonder if this per-conception comes from poor scanning ? Or maybe they make the filters soft and fuzzy so people would use them more on selfies... Oh god what have they done!

I wonder what kind of Camera he was using.

It reminds me of the graffiti scenes from the movie 'Beat Street':

David Geffin's picture

FYI for you and anyone else posting clips like this in future.....if you remember Beat Street AND post a Beat Street video from Youtube AND it includes photography related shenanigans in one of my articles you automatically get elevated to Level 1000 God Status. Congrats!

Glad you like it Dave.

Nice that you promoted me to God level; my girlfriend also does it often as she keeps telling me as 'Oh GOD!! Oh Gooodd!'. :-)

I saw this movie as a kid and remembered the white train challenge they had. When I look the scenes of those dirty subways, I really see in what poor shape they were.
This makes me wonder, an article on the world's dirtiest subways would be interesting. Perhaps not photography related for F-Stoppers, but still interesting nevertheless.

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