Living in New York City, you spend a lot of time on the subway. So you turn to books, music, and of course, our handy little smartphones. Basically anything that will distract you from the moment. But once upon a time, when someone rode the train—that’s essentially all they were doing.
And with the images from the book Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt we see that there is certain charm to that. Capturing photos of passengers riding the New York City trains in the 1970s, Levitt finds people stuck in time (for us), and stuck in the moment (for them), getting from point A to point B.
Perhaps the goggles of nostalgia have fallen over our eyes a bit when we look at the images, but there is a certain acceptance in the subjects, which, unlike our modern minds, they just accepted the now and allowed their thoughts to be a distraction. People of all ages, from all walks of life, in different situations even as they ride (some are couples, other solo riders), but all of them brought together by an choice, or dependency, to use public transportation.
Helen Levitt was a photographer most well known for her images of people on the streets of New York City. As a young photographer, Levitt had assisted photographer Walker Evans on a project in which he would take photos of riders on the New York Subway. Evans eventually finished the project and presented the work to the world. And though Levitt did have her own work from the project, none of it was ever presented. But she returned to the trains in 1978 to continue the project on her own and the images are what are displayed in the book.
Her photos have been shown in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and though she was mostly known for her black-and-white photos, she did receive two Guggenheim Fellowships (grants awarded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”) to document New York through color photography. She also received an Academy Award nomination in 1948 for the documentary. “The Quiet One,” on which she worked as a cinematographer and writer.
You can purchase the book here.