The gentleman photographer who rode the New York subway in perilous times
At the end of the 1970s, Swiss photojournalist Willy Spiller decided to fulfil a wish of his and move to New York. His fascination for the New York City subway resulted in an exhibition and a photo book, Hell on Wheels, that has now been newly edited.
- Deutsch Willy Spiller: Er fotografierte in einer der gefährlichsten U-Bahnen der Welt
- Español El fotógrafo que viajó en el metro de Nueva York en tiempos peligrosos
- Français Un gentleman photographe dans le métro de New York en des temps périlleux
- عربي ويلي سبيلر:المصوّر والمدوّن لمؤلف "جحيم على عجلات"
At the end of the 1970s, early 1980s, New York city was in a state of decayExternal link. Known at the time as 'Fear CityExternal link', the metropolis inspired countless science-fiction dystopias, such as Escape from New YorkExternal link (1981). This was the city where Willy Spiller embarked on a journey of discovery, documenting with his photography the daily lives of New Yorkers riding what was then the most dangerous subway system in the world.
Crime was rife, with a reported 250 serious crimesExternal link in the New York subway system per week. The 2,300 police officers patrolling the network were never enough. However, it was also a city stirring under the vibrations of underground art (literally: graffiti was all the rage and was being violently suppressed) and music. It was a time when disco, punk, new wave, post-punk, funk, and a budding hip-hop scene coexisted on the city’s chaotic streets.
Back then, New York was also set the backdrop for cult films such as Saturday Night Fever, which shot John Travolta to fame, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Spiller told SWI swissinfo.ch that he left Switzerland at the right time. For him, the ambience of overall decay was the great attraction of the megalopolis. He had everything he needed: the equipment, a press photographer credential from the Zurich daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (for which he worked as a freelance reporter), and a 24th-floor apartment on Broadway Avenue overlooking Manhattan. But what most inspired him was the view from below.
The era of the analogic underground
At that time, Spiller recalls, no one carried mobile phones – people read books, newspapers, and looked at each other on the subway. He would walk around New York – the photos on the subways were incidental – without a plan. The light in each subway train and in each station was always different, and he would use whatever film was in his camera.
Spiller found it important to show respect for his profession by how he dressed – always smart, with a suit and tie. The attire of the local New Yorkers, in their jeans, sneakers and T-shirts, was not for him. On one of his outings he was stopped by a cop in Harlem, who told him, “Sir, it’s not Christmas” and asked Spiller what he was doing there. “You‘ll be robbed while wearing a suit and tie with all this camera gear!” the policeman said.
He should have heeded the cop’s advice on the night he decided to sleep on a park bench in Madison Square. Unsurprisingly, he woke up with only his press credentials – his camera and wallet were gone.
Spiller doggedly documented his travels on the subway with the curiosity of a foreigner. His diary of images, Hell on Wheels, was first published in 1984. His career took off after that. Today he is considered one of Switzerland’s greatest living photojournalists. In a sense, Spiller had a similar career arc as another giant of Swiss photography, Robert Frank, who also shot to fame after the publication (first in France and a year later in the United States) of his anthological book, The Americans, in 1958.
The exhibition Hell on Wheels is at the Bildhalle External linkin Zurich until May 20. The book of the same name has been newly edited and redesigned and has an introduction by writer and editor Bill Shapiro.
Willy Spiller graduated in photography from the Zurich School of Art and Design (ZHDK) in 1968. As a photojournalist and freelance photographer, he spent 45 years working for leading publications. He has received several awardsExternal link for his reportage abroad and in Switzerland.End of insertion
Edited by Virginie Mangin and Eduardo Simantob
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