A New Book Revisits the Grime and Pandemonium of the NYC Subway of the ’70s and ’80s

  • Jul 21.

72nd Street Station West Side, New York, 1977. All images © Willy Spiller, courtesy of Bildhalle, shared with permission

“It didn’t take Willy Spiller long to understand that there is nothing more New York than its subways, each car a sweaty, rattling microcosm of the city itself—a loud, crowded, colorful melting pot where everyone is thrust into everyone else’s business,” writes Bill Shapiro in the introduction to Hell on Wheels. Published by Bildhalle to coincide with an exhibition by the same name, the book surveys a collection of Spillers’ photographs from 1977 to 1984, forming a now legendary series of images that capture life on the move in one of the world’s largest cities.

On view now at the Amsterdam gallery, Hell on Wheels peers into the graffiti-laden train cars of the late ’70s. Commuters pack into the tiny cabin during rush hour, teenage girls still in their crisp, white school uniforms sprawl across empty seats, and a man with cuffed orange trousers cradles a radio as he waits in the 72nd Street Station. Spiller, who came to New York from Zurich in 1977 and shot more than 2,000 photos of the subway during an infamous time in its history, offers a clear-eyed glimpse of a transitory space, where, for a brief ride from one part of the city to another, people across classes and cultures commingle in a mix of energy, friction, and camaraderie.

Order your copy of Hell on Wheels on the Bidhalle website, where you can also find more of the series.


Rush Hour on Lexington IRT, Subway, New York, 1981

Schoolgirls On the A-Train to Far Rockaway, New York, 1978

Dangerous Ride, Subway, New York, 1983

Lexington Avenue Line, IRT Division of the New York City Subway, 1979

Jerome Avenue IRT Line, New York, 1980

Downtown Express 72nd St. Station, Subway, New York, 1977

The A train to Brighton Beach Subway, New York, 1977

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