Using my Leica 3A, I made this view from a NYCTA city bus in The Bronx circa 1980.
I don’t have any notes at all from this trip.
In all likelihood, I was using a 35mm Nikkor lens with a screw-mount designed for the Leica 3 series cameras. This was a favorite of mine at the time because it required an adjustable external viewfinder that made it easier to compose than the tiny window on the camera body.
The primary subject of the photo was the subway train on what I think was the White Plains Road elevated line. At right is my brother Sean. We were traveling with our grandmother from Fordham Road toward Co-op City as part of a shopping trip.
This photo has been quietly hiding, unprinted and unseen in a glassine negative sleeve for nearly 40 years! (Try that with your favorite phone photo.)
Two weeks ago when in Dublin, I went to see the motion picture Joker, a dark film in a fictional New York City setting of the early 1980s, portrayed in classic DC Comics fashion as ‘Gotham’.
Story-line and characters aside, the film’s scenes, setting and lighting recreated New York City, especially the Bronx, as I remember it from visits with my grandparents in the 1970s and 1980s. Portions of the Joker were filmed in my father’s old neighborhood. My memories were of that stark gritty dark time when graffiti covered subway cars were the norm.
Since arriving back in the USA, I’ve delved into my collection of early photos from New York City, some of which embody that fascinating apocalyptic darkness conveyed in the film, yet were merely the products of exploration of New York with my family.
However, where the film portrayed misery, mental illness, anger and extreme violence in brilliantly crafted cinema-graphic excellence, my photos were the product of child’s view to capture an exciting, albeit dark place, filled with urban wonders, railways, and visually captivating scenes.
Some of my early NYC photos were exposed on color slide film, others were on black & white. Almost all were made with my vintage 1930s Leica 3A.
These views were exposed on a very gray day in 1981, when exploring the former New Haven Railroad lines in the Bronx, my dad drove my brother and me to the NYCTA’s Westchester Yards off the Pelham Bay Line.
This was on the flight path to Laguardia Airport, and as I photographed the subway trains, my brother spotted the planes landing.
A short, curious, and heavily traveled part of the New York City subway system, is the two-stop Grand Central—Times Square Shuttle that runs solely between its namesake points.
Last week, Honer Travers and I made the journey on this relic.
Historically, two of my big challenges for color subway photography were exposure and color balance/color temperature.
Today, the Grand Central—Times Square Shuttle stations are brightly lit. I set my Lumix LX7 color temperature control to ‘auto white balance,’ which obviates most unwanted color temperature spikes caused by artificial light.
Other than scaling for internet presentation, I didn’t modify these images post processing for color temperature/color balance, contrast or exposure.
The other day I found this Fujichrome color slide in my archives. I exposed in on a subway tour with my father back in November 1998.
Working with a Nikon F2 with 28mm lens, I made this photo from the end of a platform on the Flushing Line’s elevated structure. I like the subtlety of the autumn sky. For me this brings back memories of long ago.
I recall the water color painter Ted Rose telling me about how a yellow sky stirred his memories. That was in regard to a painting he made of a wintery Midwestern scene. His memories, not mine. Similar sky though.
My dad claims that my first railway trip was on the Flushing Line in Queens, New York. That was about 1968. All I remember was the dirty floors on the subway cars, and being held up to look out the front window as we rattled along. I made no photos on that day.
Working with a Leica and Visoflex reflex-viewing attachment mounted on a tripod, I exposed this Kodak Kodachrome 64 slide with a 200mm Leitz Telyt telephoto lens.
I calculated the exposure using an old GE handheld light meter, which I promptly dropped on the floor of the famous New York City terminal, destroying the device’s sensitive electro-mechanical photocell and needle.
That was back in 1986.
It turned out that my meter had been giving me hot readings. After I bought a new meter a couple of days later, I began obtaining more accurate daylight readings and better overall Kodachrome exposures.
However, because the meter had been encouraging me to ‘over-expose’ (allow more light to reach the film than I intended), I actually produced a better color slide here at Grand Central Terminal, because slight over-exposure was necessary to balance the lighting and bring out the grandeur of the architecture.
If I’d exposed as I intended, my photo would have appeared darker. So, what makes this photo effective was the result of accidental relative over-exposure. How about that?
In December 1996, I made a sequence of photographs from this vantage point off 8th Avenue in Manhattan featuring the Empire State Building.
This is one of many images from essentially the same spot that I exposed to show the changes in lighting over New York City. I intended to use as a multiple slide dissolve sequence in a slide show, although I’ve yet to organize it.
New York Pennsylvania Station is not only Amtrak’s busiest station, but it handles nearly twice the number of passengers as the next busiest. In addition to Amtrak’s long distance trains are floods of Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit suburban runs.
Busy, yes; attractive no.
It’s been more than a half century since the Pennsylvania Railroad demolished its original Penn Station terminal buildings.
Back when I worked at Pentrex Publishing in the 1990s, every so often we would need an illustration of Penn Station for Passenger Train Journal. While photos of New York’s elegant Grand Central Terminal were a dime a dozen, decent photos of Penn Station were few and far between.
Now, when I visit Penn Station, I often try to make representative views.
So, can you make interesting photos in ugly places?
I exposed this black & white negative in the New York City Subway about 1978.
My understanding of photographic technique was minimal, as I was only eleven or so at the time and I had just begun to learn how the process worked.
In this case, not only did I underexpose the film, but when I processed it my developer was either nearing exhaustion and/or was heavily oxidized owing to poor storage.
Underexposure and underdevelopment is just about the worse of conditions with film.
This image is from one of about 100 rolls of my early efforts that had been stored in box for decades—unprinted, but not forgotten.
Unfortunately, sometime during my travels decades ago, this box of old negs was stored away.
I’d been looking for my lost early negatives for along time, and often frustrated by my inability to find them.
Believe it or not, I dreampt where to look for the missing box, and so upon my return from Dublin last week, I was finally able to locate them.
A hundred or so rolls!
I’ll begin with this one because it has special significance for me; the man at the right is my grandfather. He had brought my brother and me to the Natural History Museum at 81st street. I made a sequence of images of the subway train arriving to bring us back to the Bronx.
Since the original negative was impossibly thin, I wasn’t capable of making a print. However, I know now how to rescue difficult images:
First scan the photo, as a precaution in case chemical treatment fails (but also to show the effects of my process in a ‘before & after’ sequence.)
Soak the negative for an hour in distilled water with a hint of Kodak Photoflo.
Re-fixed negatives for 3-4 minutes in Ilford Rapid fix (mixed 1:4).
Rinse in water.
3 minutes in a Perma Wash bath.
10 minutes wash in continuous running water.
Treat for 9-10 minutes in selenium toner mixed 1 : 9 at 68F, agitating every 30 in a well-ventilated space.
Rinse in water.
3 minutes in a Perma Wash bath.
10 minutes wash in continuous running water.
The selenium toner is the key step; this helps build density in highlight areas without changing the grain structure.
After chemical treatment, I rescanned the negs and worked with this image in Lightroom to adjust exposure, contrast and sharpness.
Below are my results: not perfect, but not bad all things considered.
I’ll call this, Flushing Line Revisited. My first visit was with my dad about 1968. They’ve changed the cars since then
The New York metro-area generates its own quality of light. By afternoon on this day a mix of high cloud and four flavors of atmospheric pollution had tinted the skylight grayish orange with hints of smoggy yellow.
I made these views with my Lumix LX7 from the Manhattan-end of the double-deck Queenboro Plaza station. The Manhattan skyline looms in the distance.
Way back in the day, before third rail electrification was the rule, compact steam locomotives worked trains on New York’s elevated railways.
Most of the original Els are long gone, and many of today’s elevated structures spanning streets in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens stem from the electrified era.
Nearly forgotten are the Manhattan Els, all of which were torn down decades ago.
Old postcards survive that show the way things were.
In June, I made these photographs of the elevated structure that survives above the streets at Broadway and Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn. I find it astounding that when Els were more common, they were decried as ‘ugly.’ Simply bizarre.
The far-end of this well-known Subway route was among the lines we explored on our epic June 25, 2015 tour of New York City rail-transit.Jack May, Walter Zullig, my father and I, walked from the Long Island Rail Road station at Far Rockaway to the nearby New York City Subway station (located on an elevated structure).
At one time this had all been part of the same route, but now there’s several blocks between rail-heads.
Elaborately decorated glass bricks are a feature of the stations on the A Train route.
As we rolled westward, my father recalled visiting Rockaway Beach decades earlier when there were rows of beach-side bungalows and city streets.
Once west of the Far Rockaway the scene changes.We got off at 44th Street and took a look around.
Much of Rockaway beach seems devoid of structures, with old streets vanishing into the encroaching sand. The Bungalows are just a memory. Yet, massive multistory apartments loom in the distance above the railway structure, like something out of a doomsday film.
It’s a strange place to be. And a stranger place to make photos. This is not the New York City visited by most tourists! Yet the A train continues to JFK Airport and beyond to lower Manhattan and ultimately up-town.
How long, I wonder, would it take to ride from one end to the other?
A large portion of the New York City ‘Subway’ is elevated above street level. On June 25, 2015, my dad, Jack May, Walter Zullig and I took a whirlwind tour of New York City rail transit, during which I made dozens of photos from myriad locations.
New York City’s rail transit, including the subway, is undoubtedly one of the most visually complex transportation systems in North America, and presents endlesspossibilities for photography.
I’ll plan a series of posts featuring photos from this trip over the coming weeks.
My grandparents lived in Coop City in The Bronx for a dozen years. Their 19th floor apartment had an open terrace that looked across the Hutchinson River toward Amtrak’s former New Haven Railroad line that ran from New Rochelle over the Hell Gate Bridge toward Penn-Station.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we’d make regular visits. I was delighted by passing of Amtrak trains, and by the time I was ten, I’d figured out how to interpret the timetable to predict when trains would pass.
Amtrak was still operating a fair few former Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electrics, and these were my favorite. From about mid-1978, I’d keep my Leica 3A poised at the ready and if a GG1 were to appear, I’d make a color slide, or two.
While I made a great many photographs, my photographic efforts were, at best, rudimentary. Complicating matters was my general panic when a GG1 finally appeared.
As the train rolled into view, I’d try to gauge the lighting using an old Weston Master III photo cell and rapidly adjust the aperture on my Summitar lens, but my understanding of exposure was purely conceptual. In other words, I went through the motions, but really didn’t know what I was doing.
Also, I was photographing the scene with a 50mm lens, and the tracks were at least a quarter mile distant. Later, I learned to use my father’s telephoto lenses for some more effective views, but by then new AEM-7s had replaced the GG1s.
Recently, I rediscovered a box of long lost Kodachrome slides, including a bunch of my surviving photos from my grand parent’s terrace. This one is one of the few passable efforts, and will a little cropping, and some post processing in Photoshop, it isn’t too bad.
Learning technique is every photographer’s challenge. My learning curve was slow, in part because it was often months between the time of exposure and when I got slides back from Kodak. By the time I reviewed my results, I hadn’t remembered what I’d done, and didn’t know what to do to improve future efforts.
By comparison, kids starting today with digital cameras can see their results immediately and have the opportunity to learn quickly. Perhaps, from one of these same terraces, some kid today has captured one of the final runs of Amtrak’s HHP8s (recently retired from active work) or the rapidly disappearing AEM-7s!
Once upon a time, long long ago, Pennsylvania Railroad’s New York City terminal was among the world’s greatest railway stations.
Its architecturally enlightened design cleverly blended classical motifs and modern engineering on a colossal scale. Electrified lines brought long distance trains directly into the station. It was beautiful and functional.
Fifty one years ago the wrecking balls put an end to the fairy tale. Although, from what I’m told, in its last years the old Penn-Station was a tired, tatty vestige of its earlier days. Yet, New Yorkers were justly disgusted when the Pennsylvania Railroad ruined its once-glorious gateway to the city.
In its place, PRR built the present uninspired maze of passageways and escalators. I find it more confusing than Heathrow Airport. It looks something like mall, feels a bit like an overgrown bus terminal, and seems to have very little to do with railways until you descend into its bowels to hastily board a train.
In June, I decided I’d try to make some photos of the place. After all, it is Amtrak’s busiest station, thus noteworthy.
I was making my way from Grand Central toward Penn-Station and took a few minutes to photograph New York City’s famous Times Square Shuttle using a Lumix LX-7.
Although I’ve been making subterranean photos since the 1970s, I find that the digital photographic medium makes the process much easier, and my results generally are better.
In the 1990s, I made many New York City subway photos using a Nikon F3T with Ektachrome 200 and various filter combinations to compensate for artificial light conditions.
Calculating exposure was difficult, and despite the filtration my color balance was never 100 percent.
For these images, I set the camera for 400 ISO, selected the ‘A’-mode (Aperture priority) and set the aperture to f2.0, dialed in +1/3 exposure compensation (my standard override for interior photos), and allowed the camera’s auto-white balance take care of the artificial light.
America’s most famous station, New York Central’s crown jewel, and in 2014, a great place to photograph; that’s Grand Central Terminal. It was also my gateway to Manhattan in late June.
I’d taken Metro-North from New Haven.
When I arrived, I had a few minutes to re-explore the station and make a few photographs. I wasn’t alone in that regard. It seemed like everywhere I turned there were people aiming iPhones, or staring through the viewfinder of cameras.
The vast space of Grand Central’s main concourse with its trademark information desk and celestial ceiling makes for a compelling urban scene. It’s makes for complete contrast to New York Penn-Station’s maze of uninspired passageways that looks more like a run-down 1970s-era shopping mall or bus terminal. I was heading there next, by subway.
My friend Bob Buck of Warren had advised me to photograph old freight cars, especially those from the ‘fallen flags’ (railroads that had merged or were otherwise lost).
I kept a keen eye out for the cars of Conrail’s predecessors, which were a special interest to me.
In July 1984, I was passing Conrail’s sprawling West Springfield Yards on my way to the Boston & Albany ‘West End,’ when I saw this old New York Central ‘Early Bird’ 50ft double door car.
By that time, New York Central had been gone 16 years, and I was only 17, so the time seemed like a lifetime to me. Following Bob’s advice, I dutifully exposed a three-quarter view of the car. One frame. That is all.
In retrospect, I wish that I’d taken a few more images of the car. Today, I’d focus on the car and make some detailed views. Looking back on this car today, what I find noteworthy was that it still had its catwalks, an accessory that had been out of favor for years by the time I’d exposed this image.
New York Central 50-foot boxcar at West Springfield, Massachusetts, July 1984. Exposed with a Leica 3A with 50mm Summitar lens.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Northeastern commuter rail operations made the transition from private to public operation.
In 1983, after more than a decade of various forms of subsidy, operation of commuter rail service radiating from Grand Central Terminal on former New Haven and New York Central Railroad routes was conveyed to Metro-North (an affiliate of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority).
Thirty years later, Metro-North is one of America’s busiest commuter railways.
It embodies a curious aesthetic by blending infrastructure and classic architecture from the golden age of railroading with utilitarian modern railway equipment, while offering convenient no-frills public transport.
The days of boarding a well appointed parlor car on New Haven Railroad’s exclusive, luxurious Merchants Limited at Grand Central Terminal for the run to Boston ended long ago. Likewise, New York Central’s New York-Chicago all-sleeper extra-fare Twentieth Century Limited is now the stuff of legend.
When the new Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was the grandest and most opulent railway station in the world. It represented the power of private capital, and was New York Central’s gift to New York City.
On June 29, 2013, I made a foray in to Metro-North territory. Since I’m not a regular commuter, I have the privilege of enjoying my travels on Metro-North trains, which included my first spin on a new M-8 electric multiple unit.
See: Tracking the Light on July 3, 2013 for Metro-North Anniversaries Part 2!
Please share Tracking the Light with anyone who might enjoy it!
The best part of the apartment was the terrace, which faced the river and the tracks. As young kids, my brother, Sean, and I would spend hours sending paper airplanes and bubbles, (and sometime heavier items) off the terrace to see how far they’d go. But for me the highlight of the apartment (apart from grandma and grandpa) was the regular passage of trains.
By age 10, I’d learned to calculate running times. Eastbound (northbound) trains running toward Boston would pass 17-20 minutes after leaving Penn-Station, while Westbound (Southbound) trains were less predictable, and sometimes wouldn’t show up until after they were scheduled to depart Penn-Station.
Until 1981, Amtrak would occasionally operate its elderly GG1 Electrics, and I’d keep my Leica handy for just such an event. On rare occasions, two trains would pass in front of the apartment.
I vividly recall a frenzied moment, when Sean shouted, “there’s two trains!” I panicked and in the 10-15 seconds I had to act, I failed to locate the camera. “You missed it! I can’t believe you missed it!” Eventually, the situation repeated itself, and a photograph resulted.
By 1984, freight had been diverted off the line, while most Amtrak trains to New Haven consisted of eight to ten Amfleet cars hauled by AEM-7 electrics. The one elusive train was Amtrak’s Night Owl that passed in the wee hours (as owls do) and this train carried sleeping cars. Even at night these cars looked different than the others.
In the relative silence of early morning, trains would make an audible clatter crossing the bascule drawbridge that was just out of sight from the terrace. We were visiting for New Year’s at the end of 1983. One night during that visit, my sixth sense for trains alerted me in my sleep that the southward Night Owl hadn’t gone by at its usual time (about 3 am).
By daybreak, the Night Owl still hadn’t gone by. So, I readied my old Leica 3A, and waited. Shortly after sunrise it rolled by, and I exposed several Ektachrome slides. These might have been better if I’d used a longer lens, yet, had I done that, then the photos wouldn’t have shown all the heritage equipment, including the train’s sleeping cars, that distinguished it from ordinary North East Corridor trains. While not my greatest effort, it’s not too bad considering I was half asleep and not yet skilled with the camera.
I found this slide last month mixed in with some ‘3rds’ (my old term for slides that were not bad enough to throw away, yet neither good enough to give away—what I called 2nds, nor acceptable for slide shows—1sts). Time has move it up a couple of degrees. I’m not giving it away.
Between 1973 and 1985, my paternal grandparents lived at Co-op City in The Bronx, New York City. They had a great view of Amtrak’s former New Haven Railroad line from New Rochelle to the Hell Gate Bridge, which carried all of Amtrak’s Boston-New York trains. Until about 1980, this route also hosted infrequent freights.
When I was younger, I’d keenly watch for trains from my grandparents 19th floor terrace, all the while hoping to see Amtrak’s aged former Pennsylvania GG1 electrics. By 1982, all of Amtrak’s GG1s had been retired.
I made this morning view of a Penn-Station bound Amtrak train approaching the bascule drawbridge over the Hutchinson River led by an AEM7 electric. The scene itself wasn’t remarkable at the time, but I’m glad I made the effort to put it on film. It fascinates me now and brings me back to another time. Although details, such as how to effectively work with backlighting eluded me, I managed to get my exposure pretty close anyway.
I was 16 at the time. I used my Leica 3A with f2.0 50mm Summitar—the camera I carried with me everywhere. A couple of years ago, I located some of my long-lost early negatives and made a project of scanning them. The miracle of modern scanning technology coupled with post-processing allowed me to finally make something of photos I’d made before I was technically competent to make decent prints.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post; “the view from grandma’s terrace.”
This photo dates me. I found it looking through some scans for another project and it struck a chord, so I thought I’d put it up. In the 1970s and early 1980s, my grandparents lived at Co-op City in the Bronx, and every summer my brother Séan & I would travel to New York for a week-long visit. These trips provided me with great photo opportunities; their apartment overlooked Amtrak’s former New Haven line connecting New Rochelle with Penn Station (Hell Gate Bridge route), and we would regularly explore the city. My grandfather had spent most of his life in New York and he enjoyed showing us around. This day we took a bus from Co-op city to the old IRT station at Gun Hill Road. Back then I always carried my antique Leica IIIA with Summitar lens. New York’s subway was a favorite subject and I made many photos of it, most of them not so good. I inherited this habit of photographing the subway from my father, who had been making photos of the subway system since the mid-1950s. I was only 13 when I made this image. I processed it in the sink using Kodak Microdol-X developer. I admit that my processing technique was about as raw as my imaging skills. Despite these flaws, I think I did a pretty good job of capturing the scene. That was 32 years ago! Seems like forever. I scanned it on my Epson V600 and cleaned up the scan in Photoshop. This is full frame, although I adjusted the contrast slightly to make up for what I lost in processing.