Tense Times in Graffiti Town

A forty-year-old photography project reveals a crime-ridden, urine-soaked subway system that makes today's look downright luxurious.

Tense Times in Graffiti Town

In 1971, as Americans became increasingly concerned with the effects of over-development, pollution and urban decay, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency embarked on an ambitious project to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern” across the United States. Inspired by the famed Farm Security Administration photojournalism project, which documented American life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, “Documerica,” as the new initiative was called, sought to provide a comprehensive visual record of the country’s turbulent landscape during the 1970s.

The EPA hired freelance photographers to collect more than 20,000 images documenting the state of the environment in America. While polluted bays, rapidly-growing landfills, and spewing smokestacks were all in their purview,  the photographers’ guidelines specified that they shoot under the principle that “Everything is connected to everything else. Urban clutter is connected to air pollution, to noise, to foul water. Agri-business is connected to the use of pesticides. Lifestyles are connected to solid wastes. And, so on.”

Forty years later, Documerica’s photo archives reveal much more than simple images of pollution. They show striking urban landscapes struggling to accommodate a booming population. One young photographer, Erik Calonius—a recent journalism school grad who would go on to become a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and a bureau chief for Newsweek—was assigned to New York City and became particularly enthralled by the subway system. Calonius’ dramatic shots, taken in 1973, depict a gloomy, graffiti-covered network of trains virtually unrecognizable from the one we know today.

How did you get involved with this project?
Erik Calonius: I was 22 when I started in July 1972, fresh from Columbia’s J-school. Arthur Rothstein, who was one of the Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s—he shot the famous picture of the man and boy running toward shelter in a dust storm—was teaching a photojournalism course. He mentioned that they were going to do something similar at the EPA, and asked if anyone would be interested in a summer internship. I immediately shot up my hand and then I went down to Washington.

The EPA at that point had been pretty freshly created, and they assembled a whole big group of photographers, then I would edit their film. Eventually I got to go out and shoot some photos myself—strip mining in Ohio, other projects—and then went to New York.

How did you choose your subjects?
In New York I was particularly interested in the subway. I was a big fan of Lewis Hine, a famous photographer who shot pictures of children in textile mills—these great shots with lots of natural light, of interesting people surrounded by machinery. I thought the subway was similar—these beautiful, vulnerable people in this massive machine.

Did people know you were taking photos of them?
I had this little Leica M-3 range-finder camera that my father gave me that made hardly any noise, so I went down there and took photos very discreetly. The Nikons of the day were big and loud. The Leica was tiny and quiet. That’s what I wanted—to be discreet.

What were the subways like in those days?
It’s certainly different on the subways now. For a long time there was graffiti everywhere. The place smelled like urine, people slept on the concrete. The doors would open and panhandlers would come in, and they weren’t passive about it. I would take the subway because it was how you got around, but I wasn’t happy about it.

I moved out of New York and hadn’t been on the subways for 10 years, until I stopped once for a day, when I was taking a plane to Japan. The subways, and the city as a whole, had changed so much.

I had this moment when I was standing on the corner of Madison and maybe 50th Street. A breeze blew by and I realized that I didn’t have gum wrappers and papers around my ankles. Back then, [in the 1970s] the streets were so dirty that whenever the wind blew you had garbage all over you. The other thing I realized was that women were wearing high heels and everyone looked very fashionable. In the 70s people were sort of bundled up—it was a combat zone. You didn’t dress for fashion. The subway was the most intense combat zone of all.

How was the project received?
At the time, we were all kind of disappointed. Documerica ran out of funding, and several years had to pass before they had an impact at all. Now people who are growing up in New York, they would probably be very surprised by these photos, by the idea of people living like this, so they’ve taken on a bit of a new life.

Documerica was sort of lost for a long time. I never expected to see these photos again. So I was surprised to see them start popping up. It’s sort of like Mathew Brady, who shot all these photos of the civil war and thought he would be able to recoup his investment, but they sat in a warehouse for 40 or 50 years until people were interested. The years that went by have made the photos more interesting.

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Erik Calonius is a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, served as Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek magazine, and was an editor and writer for Fortune Magazine. He has written two books, and collaborated on more than 20 books, including the bestseller Predictably Irrational, which was named one of the best 100 books of 2008 by The New York Times.