Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick

As most New Yorkers know, the subway system is the lifeline of New York City.   In 1946 Stanley Kubrick set out as a staff photographer for LOOK Magazine to capture the story of New York City’s subway commuters.

Kubrick was not the first photographer to depict the New York City subway.  In 1938 Walker Evans shot many amazing portraits of unknowing riders with a camera hidden in his coat. This may have influenced Kubrick’s work. This Kubrick  image is a very “shot from the hip,” Walker Evans-style portrait.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.26C

As you can see below, with the exception of iPods and smart phones, activities on the train haven’t changed much in the last 66 years, including shoving one’s newspaper in everyone else’s faces.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers reading in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.30D

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.55E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.52B

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Woman knitting on a subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.16

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. People on escalators in a subway station. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.61C

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Woman waiting on a subway platform. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.81B

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Women in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.11E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Men sleeping in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.73C

Although it is now claimed that chivalry is dead, it was definitely waning in 1946.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.56E

BUT romance still thrived on some trains.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Couple playing footsies on a subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.90E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Man carrying flowers on a crowded subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.37C

Here is an explanation from Kubrick about how he took these photographs:

“I wanted to retain the mood of the subway, so I used natural light,” he said. People who ride the subway late at night are less inhibited than those who ride by day. Couples make love openly, drunks sleep on the floor and other unusual activities take place late at night. To make pictures in the off-guard manner he wanted to, Kubrick rode the subway for two weeks. Half of his riding was done between midnight and six a.m. 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. Often, just as he was ready to shoot, someone walked in front of the camera, or his subject left the train.

Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind. The guard demanded to know what was going on. Kubrick told him.

“Have you got permission?” the guard asked.

“I’m from LOOK,” Kubrick answered.

“Yeah, sonny,” was the guard’s reply, “and I’m the society editor of the Daily Worker.”

For this series Kubrick used a Contax and took the pictures at 1/8 second. The lack of light tripled the time necessary for development.

— “Camera Quiz Kid: Stan Kubrick,” The Camera, October 1948

52 responses to “Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick

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  5. I am an able-bodied woman, who can stand on my own two feet. I, however, find it interesting how many men are sitting directly under standing women. In 1946, I would have thought that men would have relinquished their seats for women.

    Not judging; just observing…

  6. It appears that people were a lot thinner back then.

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  8. Great pics!

  9. Lifeline? The subway is usually referred to as the lifeblood of New York City.

  10. Lifeline? The subway is usually referred to as the “lifeblood” of NYC.

    Activities on the train haven’t changed much (feet on the seat!) but neatness of dress certainly has.

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  12. There were less women rights back then.

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  17. They had no obesity then because their society was so primitive hamburgers were scarce and expensive. Our modern society is much more advanced.

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  20. People were a LOT thinner back then because there was no McDonald’s, processed junk food was not yet invented and people WALKED everywhere. Few people owned cars during that era in Manhattan or in the rest of the boroughs.

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  22. These are great! Thank you for sharing some of the remarkable images from the MCNY’s collection.

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  24. what is even more telling is out of all those pictures I only saw 1 person smiling.

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  43. I’ve been sneered at by women just for asking if they want my seat. I’m betting this could also be the case back then. Of course I’d win on a ‘could’ bet :p…

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