In addition to being the main artery that helps New Yorkers move about the city, the subway is arguably the single most consistent presence in locals' lives. While the pandemic has disrupted that relationship for millions of people, it has also reinforced the importance of the subway to many people's identities as New Yorkers.
One of the many hidden gems in the New York Public Library's archives are the subway photographs taken by Alen MacWeeney. Born in Dublin, he started his career in Paris as an assistant to Richard Avedon. By the mid-1970s, he had come to NYC where he captured the grittiness of the era with a small, handheld camera.
"MacWeeney took hundreds of photographs of straphangers, stations, and subway cars during the 1970s," said Julie Golia, NYPL's Curator of History, Social Science, and Government Information. "Back in his studio, he printed the photos, paired different photographs, and then edited them together in a fascinating visual dialogue."
While the photos may look like single images, many of them are actually composites of two photos printed as a single panorama. It produces a surreal effect, as though you're seeing two people awkwardly sitting next to each other on a train. Once you realize what's going on, it may make you do a double take.
“The combination of the two had a vitality and delivered something altogether better than either one or the other photograph,” MacSweeney told NYPL earlier this year about first stumbling upon the juxtapositions of photos. He added that he sought to capture “the breath of life experienced by the other passengers and myself during that time.”
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.
Note: The captions have been updated with quotation marks to clarify that these are the artist's titles.