Over the course of eight years, Swiss photographer Willy Spiller documented life on the New York City subway. From 1977 until 1984, Spiller amassed nearly 2,000 images of the subway. And in doing so, he was able to create a visual time capsule of this critical moment in the city's history.
His collection, called Hell on Wheels, is a highly sought-after visual that shows the good and bad of the era. The images were first published in 1986 and then rereleased to big acclaim in 2016. However, that edition is now out of print and is difficult to find. Thankfully, Bildhalle has published a redesigned edition of Hell on Wheels that also included previously unseen images.
The book includes a text by former LIFE magazine editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro, who provides important context for Spiller's street photography. While many focus on the dangerous aspect of Spiller's photographic undertaking, given the high crime rate on the subway at the time, Shapiro sees something different. He realizes that 40 years removed, these photographs show a far more subtle vision of life in New York City. Spiller's work no longer inspires fear. Instead, it provokes nostalgia for a time gone by.
“Forever a lover of fairy tales, I was always enthralled when I plunged into that rattling world of these mobile metal living rooms, like Alice in Wonderland, never knowing whether the next moment would be threatening, violent or funny, frightening or delightful,” shares Spiller. “Here, I could blithely observe and capture the vast human menagerie of the metropolis. Communication between passengers, if any, was subtle. People randomly crammed together for the length of a ride appeared as though they’d rather ignore all differences: status, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and age. They seemed equally exposed and uninhibited—as if they’d checked their private lives above ground—curiously indifferent to me and my camera.”
Signed and unsigned copies of Hell on Wheels are now available on the Bildhalle website. For true fans of street photography, there is also a limited edition that includes a signed print. With a 1,000-copy print run, act fast before Spiller's work once again becomes hard to find.