Photos from NYC subways in the 1980s


As a Midwesterner who didn't get a chance to fall in love with New York City subways until 2002, it's fascinating to take a trip back to the system's not-so-glory days, courtesy a collection of 1980s-era photos on Sean Kernick's 2 4 Flinching blog.

I've seen historical photos of the NYC subways before, but, somehow, the other picture collections seem to skip over this period in the subway's past. What I love best about these images—taken by photographers Bruce Davidson, John F. Conn, Jamel Shabazz and Martha Cooper—is the fact that they are documenting a full world. Sure, on these graffiti-covered and trash-strewn subways, guns got pointed at heads and white yuppies looked terrified. But this was also a system that took little girls to the beach, and suit-wearing men and women to the office.

The photos give you an unflinching sense of what these systems were like at a time when the city had basically left them to rot, but without creating a caricature that distracts from the humanity of the people involved (even the ones who contributed to the rotting). Good stuff.

2 4 Flinching: Subway, lifeblood

Photo taken by Martha Cooper.


  1. oh, gimme a break. I commuted to and from college every day on these trains, and usually fell asleep on the way home – no problem.

    So trains had graffiti on them – big deal. I also rode them home at 3 am in the morning after going out partying – no problem.

    It wasn’t that scary. It’s just the out of town people who found it all scary, subways have always been the great equalizer in NYC.

    In fact, the young African American kids riding the subways had more reason to be scared looking during the 80s… anyone remember Bernard Goetz?

    I remember MORE the thrill of the MTA finally crying uncle on the graffiti and painting all of the number 7 cars purple. Now THAT rocked!

  2. Those are the subways of my first impression of NYC when I moved there in the 1980s. The subway of today seems bland in comparison, and hardly recognizable (but they sure feel safe!).

    1. Those are [ typical images ] of my first impression of [ America ] when I [ grew up here ] in the [ ’70s and ’80s ]. The [ America ] of today seems bland in comparison, and hardly recognizable [ but it sure feels safe! ].

      There, fixed it for you.

  3. I rode subways alone in the late 1970s! Never really felt unsafe.

    I was in NYC at the beginning of the month; I took the 2 and B lines from Penn Station to Essex to visit the Tenement Museum. The cars were indeed nice and clean, and some of the stations had polished white walls and cleaned-up station name mosaics.

    But one thing hasn’t changed; the pungent, moist, blast of hot air that is pushed out of the tunnel by an approaching train. Something I’ve always associated with the beginning of an adventure.
    * * *
    Something I’d love to see picture of: The odd little gum vending machines that were bolted to subway station I-beam supports. The gum sticks they dispensed were a size I’ve seen nowhere else. The machines were built like a brick shithouse, but with a glass panel up front that let you see the remaining supply of each flavor.

    Hell, I’d love to BUY one of those machines.

    1. Hey Stef
      Happened to read your comment about wishing you could purchase one of the (gum) machines. If you go to Ebay and type in NYC subway, I have seen them 2 – 3x/year going for under $100.00

      Good Luck
      Jerry G

  4. It’s true that the graffiti was generally harmful, but the people that grew up in the culture that promoted that graffiti compose a significant number of influential artists and musicians.

    The graffiti writers of the 70s and 80s had creativity and the exercise thereof instilled in them as cultural values. I can’t think of very many times throughout history where that has happened.

    1. Including some that many people don’t really think of as “graffiti” artists like Keith Haring. (He “vandalized” blank advertising spaces rather than the subway cars themselves but it still probably wouldn’t fly nowadays).

  5. The server is down now; BOINGED!

    But I have seen a lot of these photographer’s work and just need to say: Yeah, the subway did look scary. But unless you were on them late at night or when high school let out, you were fine. I learned to ride the subway alone when I was about 11 and took it all the way from my home in Brighton Beach to 181st Street in Washington Heights (D to 59th then A to 181st) without any issues ever. Just rode in the first car (motorman) or middle car (conductor) and all was good.

    Did see lots of kids kicking out windows and tagging but never got hassled.

    But that said, even on the cleanest trains in NYC nowadays the subway is still scary when high schools let out and kids swarm onboard.

    Also there are definitely more visible rats on the subway nowadays compared to the 1970s/1980s.

  6. Looks like the subway used to suck hard. It’s way better now. To hell with nostalgia.

    Sorry, but I like my public transportation to be clean & nice. A trip to Coney Island doesn’t have to be a graffiti-coated hipster rite of passage.

    1. I agree. You are wise beyond your years, Narrowstreets.

      The subways were as dangerous a shit in the 60’s and 70’s. And 80’s too.

      Some have attempted to glean an accurate historic record from some bullshit nostalgic (and some out of context) photos and it’s both impossible and naive.

      It’s like watching “Madmen” and believing it’s a historic documentary of NYC and 60’s advertising.
      More fodder for naive hipsters who were never actually there.

    2. Except that it isn’t better now. MTA service is as bad as it’s ever been.

      I miss the good old days with none of these asshat out of towners from their flyover square states who want to change New York into a strip mall Epcot center Sex and City yunnie fantasy land. The graffiti on the trains was something I really enjoyed and looked forward to. It made riding the subways visually stimulating, fun and exciting. I wish people like narrowstreetsLA would GTFO of my city.

      1. i couldnt agree with u more. nyc back in the 70s and 80s was very colorful and had variety. these graffiti trains was beautiful art to look at. Thats one of the things that made nyc unique. This city was the only city in the world that had trains with ART on each and every car. if “narrowstreetsLA ” didnt like nyc back then, he should of lived somewhere else. no one put a gun to his head saying he had to live here. he just proved in his post that he has no taste which probably means that his life is dull and boring.

  7. I’m with narrowstreetsLA. Not that I can stand Times Square now, but I would never want it to be what it was in the 80s again, either. You hipsters can keep your “grit” and your “it’s just so REAL, man” crap. I’ll take no guns being pulled on people any day.

  8. Underground and above it with Bruce Davidson

    By Robert K. Elder
    Tribune staff reporter

    February 24, 2004

    In his midteens, photographer Bruce Davidson received his first taste of subway culture on Chicago’s elevated train.

    Born in Chicago, raised in Oak Park, Davidson rode the rails into the city, exploring neighborhoods and the Loop, developing skills that would make him a world-renowned photographer.

    Although Davidson made a name for himself documenting neighborhoods (“East 100th Street”) and shooting celebrities (Marilyn Monroe on the set of “The Misfits”), some of his most celebrated work springs from the year he spent photographing the New York City subway system and its riders in 1979.

    Previously published in 1986, a new edition of “Subway” (St. Anne’s Press, 125 pages, $65) features 42 new images that capture a gritty, subterranean world from which Davidson coaxes beauty and color. Below, Davidson, 70, recounts his life as picture hunter on the rails in Chicago and New York, his adopted home.

    Q. Can you contrast the Chicago “L” that you knew with the New York subway of that time?

    A. The “L” was a lot safer than the New York subway.

    In 1979, New York City was in default.There were potholes everywhere; neighborhoods were abandoned. The subway was dismal and dangerous, with graffiti all over the place and robbers. If you had a gold chain around your neck, they’d rip it off. It was a frightening place.

    I felt the atmosphere needed to be documented down there. Not just the misery — not just the beast, but the beauty.

    I liken it to deep-sea fish that are photographed in total darkness under hundreds of fathoms of water, and yet have color — where does that come from? My camera’s strobe light bouncing off and penetrating the graffiti and flesh in that subway gave a dimension of color and meaning. I started in black and white, but I soon switched to color, because I found meaning in the color. And it helped transform the subway into another light.

    Q. How might this book had been different if you had shot it in Chicago?

    A. Well, the “L” from Oak Park to Chicago Loop is aboveground. Much of the New York subway is aboveground; I think about a third of it or so. So, it’s not only a subterranean experience, but also an elevated experience.

    You get a sense of the city from a moving train. Motion is very much a part of it. When you’re moving, not only neighborhoods are scrolling by, but time and space is scrolling by.

    The “L” was an experience of my early teenage life, which you always carry with you. I’ve left Chicago, but Chicago hasn’t left me.

    See, living in Oak Park, when I was about 15, I was an avid photographer at that age. And I was old enough that my mother, a single parent, would allow me to go into the Loop by myself and spend the afternoon roaming around. . . .

    I wanted to go to Maxwell Street, but looking out the window, I could see Milwaukee Avenue. . . . I saw all these neighborhoods. . . . At that time, it represented freedom and exploration of the human condition. . . . I got very, very involved with that.

    Actually, the “L” was a kind of a catalytic agent for work I did much later in the New York subway.

    Q. There were 42 images added to this edition of the book. Tell me about your favorites.

    A. Well, Page 38. It’s a woman. You don’t see her face, only the delicacy of her scarf. It was an essence of the woman without showing her face. It’s a portrait without a face. It’s what James Agee called “badges of our being.” . . .

    The first thing the Nazis did when they captured people, they ripped their being off of them — took their rings, a jacket, a nice pressed shirt or coat — those things that make us feel human and give us an identity, in a way. That woman had kind of a badge of being. To wear a delicate scarf in this dark tunnel impressed me.

    In the New York subway, the robbery picture you see in the book, that was made on the No. 1 train from 72nd Street to Times Square. That picture was made during the week, and the robber knew he had two or three minutes from the express stop between 72nd and Times Square to commit a crime.

    Q. This is the much-talked-about photo, on Page 91, with a man in a red jacket holding a gun up to someone’s head . . .

    A. New York magazine called me, and they were doing a story on a series of subway undercover detectives, who dressed themselves and behaved in certain ways to entice muggers.

    And one detective was dressed as a rabbi with a beard, and he wore a gold chain. Of course, rabbis don’t wear chains, but the robber probably didn’t know that. I volunteered, since I had been mugged previously when I was alone. . . . I volunteered to be a decoy so, I acted in such a way to get mugged. Now, I always had my camera out around my neck when I took pictures because I can’t just hide the camera and then approach people. It has to be out there, in the open. I took a subway map out and pretended I was lost.

    The robber came into the car, robbed the sleeping rabbi/detective — took his chain right off his neck — and came towards me at the end of the car. He said, “Give me that camera!” And just at that moment, I lifted my camera and photographed him. And as I photographed him, [the detective] Billie moved in with the .38 and arrested him, so it was a simultaneous thing. One frame.

    Q. So what we’re seeing, the gentleman in red is actually a police officer.

    A. Yeah, he’s an undercover. And you see, he’s sitting there in the middle of the train with a boombox and dark glasses in that kind of hip-hop clothing, and the robber [thinks], “Oh, I got a brother. He’s going to help me. He’s not going to say anything.” And that was his fatal error.

    The group was disbanded after awhile because the bait was too good. Sometimes the cops looked so good, I was going to rob them myself.

    Q. What happened afterward? Are there other images from the incident?

    A. He was arrested, and I felt sorry for him. As soon as he robbed me, they took him out and cuffed him. They took him right off the train at 42nd Street.

    Then, I felt I couldn’t photograph him being arrested at that moment. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, because he was cuffed and helpless.

    Q. For you, when did this menacing but beautiful world of the subway begin to change?

    A. Well, even in 1979, there were people trying to change both the city and the subway system. And now, today, if you would look in the subway, you’d think you’re riding to a country club. The Lexington Avenue line is brand new. It’s almost sterile, the subway. I couldn’t do [the book] now.

    The idea of seeing graffiti, even an inch of it, is so repugnant to the powers that be, that they just erase it. But of course, you can’t stop it, because they etch it into the windows.

    I’m not an advocate of graffiti, but it had its meaning. It was an extension of the personality of the people in front of it. It was like Medusa with the snakes growing out of her hair. So there were many layers of personal aesthetic meaning for me.

    Q. Do you ride the subways much nowadays?

    A. Oh sure. The subway is a great human equalizer. . . . We all take the subway. It’s an incredible mode of transportation; it’s fast. I’m kind of an insider subway rider. I like to miss the local, get on the express a few minutes later, and beat the local to my station. I’m a subway junkie and a subway jockey.

    Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

    1. Thanks for sharing that interview! The photo of the guy holding the gun to someone’s head, and the story behind the photograph are intense!

  9. This also reminds me of the way that the subway was depicted in The Warriors, not to mention The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It’s funny; I lived in Chicago in the late seventies to early eighties, but the Chicago El (short for “elevated”; despite their different names, both the El and the NYC subway have both underground and above-ground stretches) never seemed that dangerous or tagged-up, comparatively speaking. When I visited NYC for the first time, I wasn’t too regretful over not having the time to ride the subway.

    When I went back there, less than a decade later, to live there for a short time, the NYC subways had been cleaned up and were much more like the Chicago El. I really loved the system, in part I think because the relatively linear geography of Manhattan allows subways to serve almost the entire island much more easily than the more spread-out geography of Chicago. I had no worries about riding it after midnight.

  10. Those were the days! If you stopped being scared of stuff you didn’t understand and tried to understand it – every ride was like a treasure hunt. Those scribblings had meaning and sometimes meaning that impressed you. As for safety, the modern look just gives you the appearance of safety, all of the old rules still apply. The first being stand back from the platform. Only last week somebody pushed a young lady in front of a train because he wanted to see what it felt like. The NY crazies are still all around you, be afraid.

    I am often surprised that the same people who screamed and moaned about the only artform ever created by children, make no bones about busses and trains wrapped in Vaporub ads. That is much more intrusive and less interesting imo.

  11. I had the very good fortune of both meeting Mr. Conn and purchasing some of his prints at a recent street fair here in Brooklyn. They are mind blowing and bring back many memories for my Bklyn born co-tax filer. He even told me the story of getting yelled at by the brid throwin’ whimple wearin’ nun who was reading the NYP with the headline “POPE SHOT”. His glacier photos are pretty cool too, he’s pretty good at capturing things quickly disappearing.
    Also has a cool photo of an early Keith Haring graffiti in situ.

  12. @ seyo-“asshat” is a term with purely a suburban, or at least New jersey, etymological origin.

  13. As one of those little girls that took the train to the beach in the 80’s (although not one of the ones photographed here) I can say that there were real downsides to the subways in the 70’s and 80’s. The graffiti was lively, and it was fun to see when the subway emerged into the station if any of the cars had anything good on them (“good” being the whole side done by one artist). On the other hand, often the windows and maps were covered over, which sucked. What the photos do not capture was the lack of air conditioning, which in the summer made taking the subway a real ordeal. When it arrived on the platform it was like a blast of sooty sirocco wind, and the inside was more like hell. Also, because of the cutbacks in the 70’s, the system broke down a hell of a lot more than it does now. Trains were often rerouted for unintelligible reasons (the PA was like Donald Duck having a heart attack), or just stalled in the middle of tunnels for long periods of time.

    Yet, all said, I agree with the posters who wax nostalgic for the old New York. Manhattan, at least, has been castrated by gentrification. It depressed the hell out of me.

  14. Love the shout out to my boy from college, Sean Kernick! The guy introduced this Greenwich, CT kid to the subculture of tagging and graf and how to best hide from cops that are chasing you. ‘Cuz they did. Well, at least campus security. Sean’s the real deal, an artist and true lover of the art and meaning of graf. Not just a bored kid intent and venting his anger at the world through destruction. Check out his site.


  15. Ah, the world I grew up in. I don’t miss the crappy tags all over the insides of the cars, but I do miss the occasional big, colorful full-car-length exterior murals you sometimes saw.

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