Gritty and Dystopian Looking New York Subway in 1981



Some people say that cities act just like living organisms. And the bigger that organism, the slower is its heart rate; just like in real life with real animals. So, basically, a city pumps in people every morning when they go to work, and then again in the evening, when they come back home; basically one “heartbeat” a day. And in order to facilitate this daily beat, a city makes use of its subway, among other major arteries, to “pump” people in and out.

The New York subway system in the ‘80s has seen some really amazing changes, in what can only be described as a “Jekyll and Hyde” period. For the first half of the decade, the New York subway looked as if it was from a dystopian future, riddled with crime, grit, and graffiti tags beyond count.


The 22-year-old at the time photographer in the making, Christopher Morris, became fascinated with this world below an embedded himself in it, day and night. For a period of six months, he rode the trains alone, or together with the Guardian Angels – the volunteer anti-crime group. He also went along with groups of teens riding the trains at night, only to catch the morning commuters going to work that day.

“I was actually out looking for criminal elements,” he told TIME, “trying to prove myself as a photojournalist, and prove myself to myself.”

By making use of Ektachrome film and a magenta filter to offset the fluorescent lights, Morris was able to catch the grit and overall atmosphere of the New York subway in the early 1980’s. The images he was able to forever freeze in time were of the subway cars being tagged, the stations covered in dirt and grime, dubious-looking passengers, but also daily commuters going about their business, reading newspapers or listening to music.

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