Before Stanley Kubrick rose to fame as the acclaimed director of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining, he worked as a photographer for Look magazine at the young age of 17. After starting out doing freelance work, Kubrick joined the photographic department as the youngest staff member. With a keen eye for aesthetics and a natural sense for visual storytelling, he produced the highest number of published articles of any photographer for the magazine from 1945 to 1950.
Among those published stories was Life and Love on the New York City Subway, a series of striking photos depicting passengers on their daily commutes in the lifeline of the city. Shot in 1946 over the course of two weeks, and often late at night, the images portray candid, romantic, and humorous moments that belie the difficulty of taking the photos in the uncontrived manner that Kubrick wanted. He couldn’t shoot until the train was stopped at a platform because of the motion and vibration of the car. Often, just as he was about to press the shutter of his camera, another passenger would suddenly pass in front of the lens, or his subject would get up and leave.
Despite these challenges, Kubrick captured a fascinating series that reveals the fashion, style, and behaviors of New Yorkers in this postwar period. Passengers read newspapers, sleep on rows of empty seats, steal away for intimate moments together, and even discreetly play footsie with each other on the subway. As these photos show, decades before he produced incredibly influential works of cinema, Kubrick was already using his lens to shed light on humanity.
To see more of Kubrick’s photos, check out the archive on the Museum of the City of New York’s website.