Photos of gritty 1980s New York subway go on display

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Photographer Bruce Davidson
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Photographer Bruce Davidson

A photographer capturing the "unsafe, dirty" New York City subway for a year circa 1980, shadowed a lone woman, standing on a platform.

"I took the picture and then I approached her, and she said, 'I was aware of you, and I was getting ready to kick you,'" said photographer Bruce Davidson.

The result was the silhouette of a young girl in a revealing dress, one of some 30 re-edited stills on show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which opens Saturday until August 5th, as part of the exhibition "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street".

Davidson, 78, who worked with famous Magnum photography agency for 50 years, is displaying his works alongside other images of New York and Chicago, taken by legendary photographers like Walker Evans.

Davidson saw his model some 30 years later when the photo was published in a book. "She's an investment banker (now). Very successful. She could afford to buy the book," he said.

Davidson says he saw himself as something of a thief, stealing telling images of New York society in transit. "Sometimes I didn't ask (for permission to photograph) at all. Sometimes I just ran like hell," he said.

But he never hid his camera.

"It was important to have that exposure," he explained.

Davidson's everyday subjects weren't all as benign as the lone woman in the revealing dress.

One photograph shows a thug pointing a gun at the temple of a young undercover police officer.

"New York Magazine asked me if I would join a group of subway detectives who dress and act in such a way to be mugged," Davison said.

The self-described "black and white photographer" took to New York subway system for a year, focusing his lens on the city's criminal underbelly with his Leica camera -- this time in color.

"Something was coming through in color. There was a message, a meaning," Davidson said.

In the city's dark underground, Davidson says he found a kind of enlightenment.

"I've found humanity, and I've found myself. I was enriched by the life that I found in the New York subway at that time."

Davidson more recently focused his lens on Los Angeles, exposing its unique relationship between nature, the mountains and the city in a series of photos published in The New Yorker.

"I don't know what will be next," he said, explaining he has only ever used film to shoot his subjects. "Everything up until now has been conventional."

But he isn't afraid to grow with the increasingly digital industry. "In five years, they may not have any more film," he said. "I have to go back to school."

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