The news was grim: five people dead, hundreds injured, and five subway cars trashed in a pile of debris. It was August 1991, and a No. 4 train had just derailed under Union Square in New York City in one of the deadliest mass transit accidents in the city's history. Subway operator Glenn Rowe had finished his shift on the day of the accident, when his brother, a work train operator for the MTA, called to say he had to work the salvage shift at the wreck. Would Rowe like to come along?
Rowe grabbed his camera, fastened his work vest and hurried to the abandoned 18th Street Lexington Avenue station. When he arrived, he flashed his employment pass to supervisors at the scene and pushed his way through to a clear position on the nearby platform, where he took some of the first photographs ever taken of the wreck.
The photos could have amounted to tawdry voyeurism. Instead, Rowe managed to capture the gravity and the ghostly commotion of New York’s subway workers at the scene of a tragedy. After all, Rowe is a seasoned photographer: he belongs to a club of sorts of current and former transit workers who double as secret, eloquent photographers of the trains and systems they operate.
In the 1970s and 1980s, they documented the grimy, graffiti-covered subways where vigilante Guardian Angels squared off against thugs. Today, they snap mint-new cars with automated messages and light-up signs. Taken together, their thousands of photographs are an homage to New York’s subway system.
"Most people do it because they’re enthusiasts," says Nick DiBari, a photographer and dispatcher for several MTA subway lines. "They want to have a record of it for future generations. You work with the equipment, you start to get attached to it."
No one knows exactly how many transit photographers are out there, but at least 20 current and former subway operators, dispatchers and conductors showed up to the 13th Annual Mass Transit & Trolley Modeler's Convention, held at Rutgers University’s Student Center in early October, to buy and sell their transit-related photographs and memorabilia.
Arrayed on dozens of tables in two large halls of the student center were old bus, trolley, train and subway maps, miniature transit models, subway roll signs, slides, vintage tickets, expired MetroCards, bus change collector machines and reams upon reams of photos from all eras by dozens of photographers.
Most of the photos had labels that detailed the date the shot was taken, the model of the subway car, the photographer, and often the car's serial number, the station, and an explanatory note.
While many subway shots document trains as a matter of plain historical fact, some are extraordinary. In one 1982 photo, a graffiti-scarred behemoth pulls in to Brooklyn’s Avenue H station over snowy tracks. In another photo taken during rush hour at a grimy Grand Central in 1981, a woman peers out the front window of a muscular model R-36 7 train, draped in shadow, the fenders and her hair brightly outlined chiaroscuro-like.
Many of the shots hint at incredible narratives. During the World Series in New York in 2000, Rowe found out that Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton—mayor and senator at the time—were on the same 7 train headed for Shea Stadium. Rowe trailed the train, then used his employee pass to get into the Corona Park subway yards to shoot the rare Subway Series redbird that had just transported the politicians to Game 3.
Some photos are taken from operators' cabins as they drive, which is technically against MTA rules. Subway operators have even been known to ask their dispatcher, who controls the light signals on the track, to halt their train while they run out of their trains to take the perfect shot.
At the transit convention, non-transit-employee hobbyists wandered among transit workers, and older retirees caught up with old friends from their MTA days. Carlton Bridges has been a subway operator since 1985, but coincidentally, he was Glenn Rowe’s partner for a year before that, conducting the same A train Rowe was operating. Bridges's job as a conductor was to inform passengers which station they had arrived at. He joked around with Rowe beside his display table.
"I was the highest quality conductor," says Bridges. "I spoke the Queen’s English." He leans toward an iPhone like it's the microphone in a conductor's cabin. "Station-stop is 59th street. 59th street. Yeah, that’s the way I would say it. Station-stop. Because it was a station-stop, you know what I mean? Station-stop is 34th street. Station-stop is 34th."
At another table, Anthony Errante, a former subway operator, marveled at photos by Joe Saitta, an older photographer who recently died. "That’s in East New York," says Errante, pointing to a black and white photo of an elevated line with a steel girder hanging above the tracks. "They were going to build an express track above it, but they never got to it."
There are a few names well-known in transit enthusiasts' circles to be among the most prolific photographers: Mike Piselli, Ed McKernan and Rowe, among others. But perhaps the most notorious subway photographer is the legendary Steve Zabel, a subway operator who was active in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are stories of Zabel halting his train, changing the cars' roll signs to display a different subway line, and then getting out and taking shots, much to the confusion of his passengers. Zabel used to lie down on the track bed or wait atop well-situated buildings above elevated lines to capture the most auspicious angles. Nearly everyone who collects has at least a few Zabels.
"Steve would climb halfway up a light pole to take a good shot. I’ve got a lot of slides from his collection," says Rowe. "He was a great photographer."
The subway operators who are still taking photos said their interest began in childhood and never disappeared. They reminisced about early trips in the operators’ cabins with relatives, and watching the subways roll by on elevated lines outside their windows.
"The first word I learned was probably 'train,'" Bridges says. "When I see little kids watching me operating in the cabin, I know they’re awed, just like I was awed."