In 1966, photographer Danny Lyon returned to his hometown of New York City after spending years documenting the Civil Rights Movement in the South and motorcycle gangs in Chicago. Once back in the city, Lyon took his mother’s advice: “If you’re bored, just talk to someone on the subway.” Using a Rolleiflex camera and Kodak color transparency film, he started taking photographs of New York’s commuters and its dingy, fluorescent-lit train stations.
Now, eight of Lyon’s large-scale subway photographs are on view for the first time in Underground: 1966. The show, hosted by MTA Arts & Design, will be up for a year at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station in Brooklyn, seen by the 40,000 people who pass through the transit hub every day.
“Many of these pictures were made on a single night–New Year’s Eve of 1966,” Lyon, 72, tells Co.Design. “That’s why one of the men is all dressed up, holding a party horn.” Lyon did not use a tripod–they weren’t allowed on the subway–and “the color film was slow, so I often made long exposures by leaning on a column to keep the camera steady,” he says. Moving objects like people show up as ghostly blurs in several images, an apt visual metaphor for rush hour.
Lyon’s photographs offer a window into the urban underground of yesteryear, revealing how subway design has changed in the past 50 years (are those cushions on the seats? And why are there no longer five-cent horoscope and weight-measuring machines or chewing gum vendors on station platforms?). Other images look more or less contemporary, suggesting the subway hasn’t changed much at all–only passengers’ retro clothing style or the dated typography on a “Do Not Stand Here” platform sign hint that we’re not in 2014.
“I love riding the subway,” Lyon says. “When I speak with someone on the subway, I find New Yorkers easily slip into a conversation. Then they step out of the door and are gone.” His portraits capture these fleeting interactions, which anyone who’s visited New York has experienced–subjects seem to have been lost in thought until Lyon’s lens caught their attention for a moment.
The series is similar in tone to Edward Hopper’s paintings of lone, contemplative city dwellers, and take a lighter approach than Walker Evans’s dark portraits of subway riders from the ’40s. Lyon, a self-taught photographer, received the Guggenheim Fellowship for photography (his first of two) three years after he took these pictures.
Lyon still acts as a stealth subway paparazzo of sorts–his half-price senior MetroCard, with his picture on it, is a proud possession–although he no longer commutes with a Rolleiflex. “I find sitting across from people as they move through the city fascinating, and I often take out my iPhone, hoping to make a portrait unobserved,” he says, “but it’s very hard to do.”
Underground: 1966 is on view at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center BDNQR2345 station in Brooklyn.