On Fear, Part 2: Looking At “Subway” by Bruce Davidson

In my previous post, we explored the three main causes of fear—insecurity, inspiration and danger—and how to act on them.

In this post, we’ll look closely at Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and how he handled his fears as he photographed people in the New York City subway in the 1980s.

Davidson was initially inspired to photograph this urban transit underworld upon realizing it was a great democratizer. In a melting pot like New York City, the subway was one of the only places where all neighborhoods and walks of life converged.

But in 1980, the subway was a very dangerous place, day or night. So to prepare for possible problems, Davidson went on a crash diet. He got in shape, partially just so he could lug his heavy equipment around for long periods of time. He also carried a Swiss army knife, whistle, police pass, subway map, quarters for homeless people, dimes for the telephone and a handkerchief…in case of bleeding.

Despite his preparations, he was still gripped with fear every time he walked onto the subway platform. He said he was even afraid of asking little old ladies if he could take their picture.

And things did happen. One time, a guy with a deep facial scar saw him with his camera and said, “Take my picture, and I’ll break your camera.” Davidson explained to the man that he never took someone’s picture without asking (which was not necessarily true), and he said he always sent prints. Davidson also brought a small album with his photos in it. So he showed that to the man, and it worked. The man let Davidson take his photograph.

Other interactions did not go as well. In fact, at one point he got mugged on the subway. Later he would be assigned by New York magazine to photograph a special decoy unit of the police—with Davidson and his expensive camera equipment being the decoy. There is a famous picture of an undercover police officer from the unit holding a gun to the head of a man who attempted to mug Davidson.

Davidson’s fears were real. They weren’t merely the result of his insecurities. But, they were part danger and part inspiration. And they had to be dealt with properly. Knowing he was putting himself in harm’s way, he physically prepared himself, and he constantly stayed alert.

He understood that he was inspired by the subway. So, he would play tricks on himself when his fears got the best of him. For example, he said he let “hunger pull [him] down there like a rat” and then he’d tell himself he would just take the subway to get a hot dog at the infamous restaurant, Nathan’s, located far away in Coney Island. It would take him an hour to get there, and by the time he arrived, he’d be in the mood to take pictures on the subway.

Davidson’s fears helped him explore what inspired the photographer without disregarding the real danger he was putting himself in. Instead of steamrolling over his fears—ignoring or fighting them—he took them seriously. As a result, he made “Subway,” a beautiful, lyrical series (his first in color, by the way) that captured a part of New York City that is now, long gone.


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