NEW YORK.- One of the most significant structures in world urban history will be the subject of three photographic exhibitions on view through January 17, 2005, at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street. Works by Bruce Davidson, Camilo José Vergara, and Sam Hollenshead will comprise an exploration of the New York City subway during the past thirty years and honor the centennial of the system that contributed to New York City’s rise to become the quintessential 20th–century metropolis.
“The subway system is an icon of New York City, an instantly-recognized phenomenon, and an essential aspect of the urban experience,” commented Susan Henshaw Jones, President and Director, Museum of the City of New York. “Begun one century ago, the subway enabled the city to grow. It is truly one of our crowning achievements.”
The New York City subway system transports more than 4 million passengers on an average weekday, covering and maintaining some 2000 miles of tracks. The system is considered among the most important factors in shaping the economic, political, and social history of what is arguably the world’s most emblematic 20th-century city. A public referendum held in 1894 authorized construction of the subway; ground was broken in 1900 and the first section of the IRT subway began operations on October 27, 1904. By 1930, the system had become the lifeblood of New York City, transporting more than two billion passengers each year. As a result—in part—of postwar suburbanization throughout the 1950s, and exacerbated by the loss of jobs in New York City, the subway began to show signs of neglect which reached a peak during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. By 1977, annual ridership had decreased by one billion passengers and the system was notorious for graffiti and crime. The subway bounced back during the 1980s under the leadership of MTA chairman Richard Ravitch and Transit Authority president David L Gunn. Since then, some $39 billion has been spent on improvements.
The exhibitions on view at the Museum of the City of New York approach the subway from various points of view. Subway, an exhibition of some 60 color photographs taken by Bruce Davidson, was first shown at the International Center of Photography in 1982. These images—many of them close-ups of people in the subway, taken from 1980 to 1981—document the stark reality of the subway system during its low point in the 20th century, and reveal signs of economic downturn and the wear of a half-century of uninterrupted usage. In his unflinching portrayal of the wide variety of riders using the subway even during this bleak time, Davidson’s photographs can be read as an expressive portrait of all New Yorkers and of particular qualities associated with New Yorkers: resilience, perseverance, individuality. Davidson’s images also mark the period in photographic history when color became a more legitimate medium and was gaining acceptance as a part of the vocabulary of documentary photographers.