Bathed in a kaleidoscope of color, these photos raise the curtain on the theatricality of New York’s subway

From David Rothenberg’s “Roosevelt Station.” (David Rothenberg)

New York is the kind of place people either love or hate. A lot of the cliches you hear about the city can be true. If you’re not careful, it’ll chew you up and spit you out without a second thought. I know that because it happened the first time I lived there. I barely lasted a year. But a few years later I returned and ended up living there for about 10 years. If you can stick it out, New York is an incredible city — a striking, exuberant example of what it means to be a melting pot of humanity.

The city’s subway is one of the many things that can unify New Yorkers. Living there thrusts you into a very special relationship with it — one that can be simultaneously frustrating yet rewarding. For example, it helps to live off a subway line most of your friends live or work off. That makes getting together with friends and heading into work easy. If you live off different lines from your friends or work, it can inject a hearty dose of frustration into your life. It can take hours to get to someone’s place if you don’t have a car and they live off a different line than you. How to get where and off what line is an endless source of bonding.

New York has a population of more than 8 million people. Right now, subway ridership is about half of what it was before the pandemic turned everything upside down across the globe. But that still puts the number of people riding New York’s subway at around 2.5 million people per day.

With so many people riding the rails, the subway is a feast for the senses. You’ll see people performing, intentionally or not, all over the place, whether in the passageways leading to the platforms, on the platforms themselves, or even in the trains. In many ways, the constant flow of people in New York is like one giant performance.

Photographer David Rothenberg’s latest book, “Roosevelt Station” (Perimeter Editions, 2021) raises the curtain on the daily theater of New York’s subway commuters. For two years, Rothenberg planted himself at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street station and captured people coming and going.

Rothenberg’s photos introduce us to a cornucopia of characters, from panhandlers, to businesspeople, to airport-bound travelers. These people are all bathed with an otherworldly glow of magenta, yellow and green, an effect created by Tom Patti’s 2004 glass installation “Night Passage,” nestled in the station.

Curator and writer David Campany, who wrote an essay for “Roosevelt Station,” describes Rothenberg’s photos this way:

“Every photograph theatricalises what is photographed. Every photograph of a person turns them momentarily into a player, an object into a prop, a space into a stage. All become signs of themselves. Dramatic, but enigmatic and ambiguous signs. Today this phenomenon feels heightened and intensified, because the most fundamental effect of living in a culture saturated with images, both still and moving, is that photography penetrates the consciousness and the very fabric of the world. We, and these spaces, do not exactly expect to be imaged, but we are not surprised when they are. We carry cameras that allow us to document our daily experiences, still or moving. Our concourses are sites of intensive advertising, but are also the subject of ceaseless scrutiny by networked security cameras, still and moving. This is the kind of observed and observable space that many of us now call normal. Call it the theatre of everyday life. Or the film set.
“It is hard to think of the intense splashes of light that dapple Roosevelt Station as chromatic accents on this whole state of affairs. Its concourse and staircases have no need to look so pretty, nor to be so self-consciously photogenic. It is not just passengers that this place anticipates, but cameras too. A well-lit trap for shadow catchers. What is far less simple to anticipate is a photographer as careful, fascinated and committed as David Rothenberg. Without judgment or the horrors of vanity, he has entered the trap and paced its hectic stage, to bring us gifts of calm contemplation. The flow is halted, the frame is frozen. Background becomes foreground. Extras become players. Momentarily.”

If you love New York, the city’s characters provide an endless source of inspiration and entertainment. Whether you’re walking down the street and bumping into the city’s many buskers or people hawking food, there’s little time for boredom. And if you are bored, then maybe this line from John Berryman’s Dream Song 14 cuts a little too close to home: “Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no/Inner Resources.” At least, that’s how I always felt living there. As the T-shirt says, “I love New York.”

You can buy “Roosevelt Station” here. And you can find out more about Rothenberg’s photography on his website.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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