The era before smartphones represented a very different time for subway patrons. If you didn’t bring a newspaper or ride with someone you knew, you’d be forced to quietly contemplate your own thoughts rather than stare at an entrancing screen. Photographer Helen Levitt discreetly chronicled these simpler, technology-free times in her candid images from the late 1970s.
The black and white photos are a quiet look at the everyday folks who rode the graffiti-decorated subway. Everyone has a different attitude towards riding; single passengers, for instance, appear lost in thought and stare blankly into space as the train barrels down the tracks. Others are cozier as they sit arms linked with loved ones and canoodle as if no one can see them. And then there are some whose presence commands the attention of the entire train with their raucous conversation. Collectively, they are characters in a play and every stop is a new scene. With Levitt’s masterful eye, we can practically hear the dialogue.
Levitt produced work over the course of sixty years that was centered around the streets of New York. Her photographs have appeared in renowned institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The images pictured here are part of Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt that was recently published by Walther König. It features a comprehensive look at Levitt’s subway photography, including many that were published for the first time. Get your copy on Amazon.