In March 1947, the popular national biweekly publication Look published a stark, six-page photo feature called “Life and Love on the New York Subway.”
The photographer behind the powerful and poetic images? Future film director Stanley Kubrick—at the time a teenage correspondent for the magazine who sold photo features on everything from city dogs to shoeshine boys to the life of a New York showgirl.
Like street photographers before him (think Walker Evans during the Depression), Kubrick decided to take his camera underground and shoot the people riding the trains.
He hoped to reveal the emotion and humanity behind the typical subway rider’s facade of disinterest and indifference, to capture romance, humor, vulnerability, and loneliness.
He explained how he did it in an interview with Camera magazine a year later.
“Kubrick rode the lines for two weeks,” the article stated. “Most of his traveling to and fro was done at night, as more unusual activities were likely to take place then.”
Kubrick used no flash, and apparently his subjects didn’t know they were caught on film.
“These are truly unusual studies and expressions of life in a subway. Running true to form, drunks, love makers, sleepers, wanderers, and lonesome people were caught, wholly unaware of the fact that they were being photographed.”
His images are striking in their ordinariness, not unlike the faces of subway riders under the streets of New York City today. Train interiors and platforms haven’t changed either.
But taking pictures on a train in the 1940s posed challenges.
“Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind.”
The kicker of the Camera story foretells the future. “Stan is also very serious about cinematography, and is about to start filming a sound production written and financed by himself, and several friends.”
These photos and hundreds more from Kubrick can be viewed via Museum of the City of New York digital collections.
[All photos from the MCNY. Accession numbers: photo 1: X2011.4.11107.61A; photo 2: X2011.411107.55C; photo 3: X2011.4.11107.45F; photo 4: X2011.4.10292.63D; photo 5: C2011.4.10292.100C; photo 6: X2011.4.11107.125; photo 7: X2011.4.11107.92E; photo 8: X2011.4.11107.49F]