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Home » The Grit And Danger (And Occasional Glamor) Of Life On New York’s Subway: Nostalgic Images Show City’s Famed Transport Network In The 70s And 80s

The Grit And Danger (And Occasional Glamor) Of Life On New York’s Subway: Nostalgic Images Show City’s Famed Transport Network In The 70s And 80s

The grit and danger (and occasional glamor) of life on New York’s subway: Nostalgic images show city’s famed transport network in the 70s and 80sMan with boombox standing perilously close to tracks and schoolgirls chatting idly among collected imagesWilly Spiller captured threatening, violent, funny and delightful contradictions of subway from 1977 to 1984 By James Callery

Published: 12:29, 2 August 2023 | Updated: 14:40, 2 August 2023

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The grit, danger and occasional glamour of life on New York’s subway in the 1970s and 80s has been detailed in a set of photographs.

Acclaimed photographer Willy Spiller, who lives in Zurich, Switzerland, captured the threatening, violent, funny and delightful contradictions of the city’s graffiti-ridden transport network from 1977 to 1984.

From a man with a boombox standing perilously close to the tracks to schoolgirls slumped in their seats while chatting idly, the images depict the raw energy of the city, evoking classic films like The Warriors and Wild Style.

Spiller, whose book Hell On Wheels has recently been republished as a special edition, said: ‘The New York City subway system of the 1970s and 80s was sometimes referred to as Hell on Wheels. To me this conjures images of a steel prison, rattling through the underworld’s eternal darkness.

‘Why then have I never felt such freedom – freedom, abandonment and equality – as on a subway train in this storied town?’

Spiller himself has always loved fairy tales, and in producing the shots relished the idea that the story may not always have a happy ending.

He added: ‘Forever a lover of fairy tales, I was always enthralled when I plunged into the rattling world of these mobile metal living rooms, like Alice in Wonderland, never knowing whether the next moment would be threatening, violent or funny, frightening or delightful.

‘Here I could blithely observe and capture the vast human menagerie of the metropolis.’

Schoolgirls On the A-Train to Far Rockaway, New York, 1978. A group of friends chat idly while slumped in their seats. Acclaimed photographer Willy Spiller spent two decades capturing the threatening, violent, funny and delightful contradictions of the city’s subway

Rush Hour on Lexington IRT. A woman looks out of the window on a crowded subway train. Spiller said: ‘Each car is a sweaty, rattling microcosm of the city itself – a loud, crowded, colorful melting pot where everyone is thrust into everyone else’s business’ 

Downtown Express 72nd Street Station, West Side IRT, 1977. Residents wait on the platform as a subway train rushes past

Jerome Avenue IRT Line, 1980. Passengers are seated on the graffiti-daubed carriage. Passengers are seated beside the graffitied walls of the train. Spiller said: ‘The New York City subway system of the 1970s and 80s was sometimes referred to as Hell on Wheels. To me this conjures images of a steel prison, rattling through the underworld’s eternal darkness’ 

Getting to the Office, Grand Central Station, 1983. The disconnect between commuters is highlighted in a desolate image. Spiller said: ‘They seemed equally exposed and uninhibited, as if they’d checked in their private lives above ground – and were curiously indifferent to me and my camera’ 

On the Beat, Police Control, 72nd Street Station West Side IRT Line, 1977. A police officer looks out over the platform beside a grimy subway train

Dangerous Ride, Boy Clinging Outside a Subway Car, 1978. A boy holds on to the top of the carriage doors as the train prepares to depart at Franklin Avenue. Spiller has always loved fairy tales, and in producing the shots relished the idea that the story may not always have a happy ending

Conversation on the A-Train, Subway NY, 1982. Two passengers chat to one another beside a tequila poster

Riding Together, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977-1985. Spiller said: ‘Forever a lover of fairy tales, I was always enthralled when I plunged into the rattling world of these mobile metal living rooms, like Alice in Wonderland, never knowing whether the next moment would be threatening, violent or funny, frightening or delightful’

After the Rehearsal, Columbus Circle, Subway NY, 1982. Dancers wait on the platform to return to their homes as a train rumbles past

Elevated Station 180 St, Queens, New York, 1982. Spiller’s book, Hell On Wheels, has recently been republished as a special edition

A Train to Brighton Beach, 1977. Spiller said: Why then have I never felt such freedom – freedom, abandonment and equality – as on a subway train in this storied town?’

Ghettoblaster Man Waiting, 72nd Street Station West Side IRT Line, Subway New York. A man stands perilously close to the tracks on a deserted platform

Conductor Between Subway Cars, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NYC, 1977-1985. A conductor peers out over the platform