Photographer Spent Eight Years Capturing Life on the Gritty New York Subway in the 1970s and 1980s

New York City Subway Street Photography by Willy Spiller

Grand Central Station, New York, 1983, Getting To The Office, Subway New York, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977–1985

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.

New York City Subway Street Photography by Willy Spiller

Jerome Avenue IRT Line, New York 1980, Unguided Tour 1977–1985

“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.

Starting in 1977, Swiss photographer Willy Spiller spent eight years documenting the New York subway.

Photo of the New York City Subway in the 80s

Rush Hour on Lexington IRT, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NYC, 1977–1985

Beat Cop Patrolling New York City Subway in the 80s

Subway New York, Hell on Wheels, Police Control, 72nd St. Station West Side IRT Line, NY, 1977–1985

Schoolgirls in the subway in New York City in 1978

Schoolgirls on the A-Train to Far Rockaway, Subway New York, 1978, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977–1985

New York City Subway Street Photography by Willy Spiller

Riding Together, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977–1985

His gritty photos of life on this “Hell on Wheels,” as it was then called, have a cult following.

Willy Spiller Street Photography

Downtown Express 72nd St. Station, Women Waiting on Platform West Side IRT, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, Subway New York, NY, 1977–1985

Willy Spiller Street Photographer

Ghettoblaster Man Waiting, 72nd St. Station West Side IRT Line, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977–1985,

Willy Spiller Street Photography

Dangerous Ride, Boy Clinging Outside A Subway Car, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NY, 1977–1985,

Willy Spiller Street Photographer

Conversation on the A-Train, Subway NY 1982, Unguided Tour 1977–1985

Now, the series has been republished in a new edition of Hell on Wheels.

Willy Spiller Street Photographer

Conductor Between Subway Cars, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, NYC, 1977–1985

Willy Spiller Street Photographer

After the Rehearsal, Columbus Circle, Subway NY 1982, Unguided Tour 1977–1985

New York City Subway Street Photography by Willy Spiller

Elevated Station 180 St, Queens, New York, 1982, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels, Subway New York, NY, 1977–1985

The book is available for sale via the Bildhalle website.

Vintage New York City Street Photography

Hello! Greeting Women Descending Staircase, Subway New York, Unguided Tour Hell on Wheels,1977–1985

Willy Spiller: Website 

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Bildhalle.

Related Articles:

1980s New York City Captured Through the Eyes of a Teenager

Vintage Photos Reveal the Gritty NYC Subway in the 70s and 80s

Top 12 Street Photographers Who Captured the Grit of New York in the 70s and 80s

Discreet Photos of NYC Subway Riders in the 1970s Show an Era Before Smartphones

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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