Picks and Pans Review: Subway

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Bruce Davidson

A gifted follower of Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith, Davidson first made his mark in the '50s with photo essays on a circus dwarf and a Brooklyn street gang. His interest was not in the freakish but the human, a dimension he continued to investigate in later essays, notably a 1970 book on a single East Harlem block, East 100th Street. Subway continues his exploration of places most people don't go unless they have to. If the New York City subway Davidson presents is extreme, it's because he rode at all hours and because most people don't let their eyes roam once they push through the turnstile. This is a portrait of an urban purgatory. It is also a brilliant demonstration of the interpretive uses of flash. In one photograph, the flash illuminates cacophonous graffiti swarming over a car's interior. Through the dark window of the door leading to the next car you can just make out a ghostly figure regarding the photographer with a serene and unsettling smile. In other shots darkness surrounds Davidson's human subjects. Often their expressions are tense and wary. While the book is not going to help the Transit Authority spur ridership, it is far more sensuous than might be expected. That owes partly to the fascinating mixture of defiance and insouciance Davidson finds in the faces of young toughs, partly to the exotic allure of his necking couples and his young women waiting on an elevated platform. Most of all it owes to the glowing color and surreal form he unearths. As purgatories go, Subway is not a bad place to spend some time. (Aperture, $29.95)

From Our Partners