The subway system in New York City snakes through each of its five boroughs, connecting residents via hundreds of miles of electrified tracks. Just as passengers have been accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) — including its frequent delays and signal malfunctions — so too have they become familiar with art and performing arts within the trains and stations. In the 1980s, in particular, as street art exploded around the city, the steel train cars became the canvases for graffiti artists.
Shabazz often captured the city’s youth culture against a backdrop of graffiti art. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
“What I loved about the trains back then was the fact there was endless subject matter to photograph and the (setting) allowed me to work with available light,” the photographer said over email. “Since I focused on documenting young people, high school kids were ever present, and on the weekends all of the trains (in Brooklyn) going into the city were full of youth headed to Times Square.”
Shabazz has an eye for both documentary and fashion images, finding stylish residents on platforms and in trains. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
The photographer has recently gathered a survey of the images, which span four decades, into a new photo book, “City Metro.” The black-and-white and color images chronicle Shabazz’s often joyful and serendipitous encounters as the city itself weathered periods of unrest and social change — from the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s to the waves of gentrification that saw wealthy residents and developments begin to alter the city’s neighborhoods.
Shabazz recalled early mornings during rush hour in the 1980s, when the tagged train cars would appear as “a moving art show.”
“Graffiti artists spent their weekends painting the trains parked in the yards and delighted in introducing their masterpieces during the beginning of the work week,” he said. “As each train car appeared many of them would be painted in vibrant, 3D colors from top to bottom, with inscribed names such as The Fabulous 5, LEE, DOZE, DAZE, SHARP and DONDI.” The tags represented individual artists or crews who would vie for visibility on the trains, sometimes painting entire cars.
The photographer captures an array of individuals, including performers, who make up the vivid tapestry of the metro system. Credit: Jamel Shabazz
Shabazz is a constant, invisible presence in his photographs, as friends lean in close and grin for his lens, or he catches the eyes of passengers pressed close together through the window of a train car. He also had an eye for fashion and style, too, and people would often pose for him.
Photographing on the subway was “an ideal self-assignment,” Shabazz said of why he began the body of work. Today, he added, “I still find joy in photographing complete strangers on the trains.” Credit: Jamel Shabazz
Shabazz said the city’s transit system — with its “live performances and personalities” is unlike any other he’s visited for its ecosystem of individuality. New York’s subway “offers a constant stream of creativity (in) one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse cities in the world.”