Stanley Kubrick the photographer: A look back at his ‘People Of The New York Subway’ series from 1946
Before becoming the acclaimed director we all know so well, Stanley Kubrick was a working photographer for LOOK Magazine.
Armed with his camera lens in the post-war years of 1945-50, the young staff photographer focused his creative vision on a particular group of people during the year 1946, the ‘People Of The New York Subway’—we take a look back at this fascinating moment in time.
Kubrick was keen to keep his shots candid and off-the-cuff in an attempt to accurately capture the freeing feeling the subway at night provided people. If you’ve ever ridden a metropolitan railway at night you will know that after a certain hour it all gets a little debauched.
To achieve his aim, Kubrick rode the subway at varying times of day and night for a two week period. However, the young creative found himself focusing his attention during the time between midnight and 6am always hoping to catch the right moment of openness from his subjects. Capturing them at all was a tricky venture, Kubrick could only operate the camera successfully when the train was fully stopped as the motion and vibration would ruin his shots otherwise.
While the technical challenges reared their head for Kubrick, so did the physical ones. After a run-in with a guard who demanded an explanation for his shooting, the young photographer detailed the following exchange:
“Have you got permission?” the guard is said to have asked.
“I’m from LOOK,” Kubrick answered.
“Yeah, sonny,” the guard replied, “and I’m the society editor of the Daily Worker.”
The fascinating project, which arrived somewhat as a tribute to Walker Evans with the “shot from the hip,” style of portrait images, was recently repurposed into a wonderful wide-ranging series by the Museum of the City of New York.
“I wanted to retain the mood of the subway, so I used natural light,” Kubrick said of the series. When detailing the direction in which Kubrick offered up, the museum explained: “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 used a Contax and took the pictures at 1/8 second. The lack of light tripled the time necessary for development.