The New York Subway in More Than 50 Years of Art
New York’s subway system first opened over a century ago, in 1904, and is now inseparable from the city in the public consciousness. Those who experience it—from locals commuting to work to out-of-towners making the pilgrimage to Times Square—are likely to encounter numerous characters along their routes. It’s a stage for endless human drama, but it’s also a character unto itself, with plenty of kinks and quirks. Throughout its history, the subway has inspired a wide range of artists, who have paid tribute to it in photographs that record couples wrapped around each other during the early hours of the subway’s nocturnal run, or paintings that evoke the profound alienation of urban life as symbolized by this transient, subterranean realm.
By 1934, when Lily Furedi painted Subway, riding the train had become commonplace regardless of race and class. Indeed, as
Ralph Fasanella, Subway Riders, 1950. From the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Ralph and Eva Fasanella. Photo by Adam Reich, courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.
The subway had been running for close to four decades when it became the monopolized, city-run system we know today, with the city buying out the IRT and the BMT in 1940. Beginning just a few years prior, in 1938, pioneering documentary photographer
As the end of WWII ushered in new wealth and resources in America, the 1950s witnessed the rise of big business, and with it, the inception of the New York City Transit Authority, responsible for all city-owned transit. While coin-operated turnstiles gave way to the token system (in turn supplanted by swipe cards in the late ’90s), consumerism mixed with Cold War fears. For artists like
In 1967, the IND was connected to the BMT for the first time. When the all-mighty Metropolitan Transportation Authority was born the following year, the MTA inherited an alphabet of train lines that included H, the IND’s shuttle. Also called HH (double letters denoted local lines), the train operated at all hours of the night from Ozone Park to Broad Channel and the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. Documenting day-to-day life in his borough, photographer and Queens local
The graffiti-covered trains of the 1970s hold fast in the collective imagination, both for those who remember them personally and for those who have seen them only in films and photos. For young people on the margins, graffiti was both a creative outlet and a defiant act during an era of political corruption and urban decline. For
While crime and derelict conditions plagued the subway system in the early ’80s, significant improvements were made by the decade’s end, thanks to mayor Ed Koch and NYC Transit Authority president David Gunn. Yet photographers have found beauty in the subway even at its worst.
Meanwhile, a not-yet-famous chalk drawings. Photographer
As the 20th century came to a close, the birth of unlimited-ride cards and self-service MetroCard vending machines brought the subway further in step with its current incarnation. Despite its many changes over the years, as
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