Book tip: Hell on Wheels – New York Subway 1977–1984

Willy Spiller

May 16, 2023

Once a dark world, today a timely document: the photo book, complementing the photographer's exhibitions in Zurich and Amsterdam, invites the reader to rediscover the New York subway.
A step back to New York in the late seventies, at a time when the subway lines were already seen as the indispensable arteries of the public transport system. Back then, the city was considered a dangerous juggernaut, and the subway's reputation followed that distinction. The New York City of former times was far from the tidy, gentrified, tourist-drawing metropolis it is today. The disastrous state of many of the city's districts did not, however, detract from its appeal – on the contrary, it attracted all the more globetrotters and individualists who hoped to fulfil their dreams there.

Swiss photographer Willy Spiller lived in New York from 1977 to 1984. He took pictures of life in the city, primarily on assignment for a Swiss weekly paper; yet, it was the dangerous world of the subway system, in particular, that appealed to him photographically. In May of 1977, after a first short night at the Chelsea Hotel, he took the steps down to the subway for the first time. “What he saw was terrifying. And electrifying. And, truth be told, addicting,” Bill Shapiro, former Chief Editor at LIFE magazine, wrote in the foreword to this book, describing Spiller's experience. Over the following months and years, the photographer went underground, time and again, equipped with his Leica or Olympus camera and highly sensitive slide film. He took pictures of random passers-by, stylish types, the chic, the needy, homeless people, policemen, drug dealers, commuters, office employees and dawdlers. The resulting kaleidoscope of his contemporaries may now be rediscovered in this re-edited photo book. “It didn’t take Willy Spiller long to understand that there is nothing more New York than its subways,” Shapiro explains. “Each car a sweaty, rattling microcosm of the city itself—a loud, crowded, colourful melting pot where everyone is thrust into everyone else’s business. At some 60 feet long by 10 feet wide, and packed with well over 150 impatient passengers at rush hour, a subway car, Willy Spiller realized, held the threads of the City’s 8 million stories: the crash of high and low culture, the swirl of accents and dialects, of cussing and laughter, of newcomers who stare and natives who have seen it all before.”

Over time and rather by chance, something of a logbook of the subway system – whose history began back in 1904 with the opening of the first section – was created, with material captured at all times of the day and night. The photo book includes a comprehensive selection, taken from over 2000 motifs that Spiller photographed during his years in New York. It provides a glimpse of New York during challenging times, which can now also be enjoyed with a good dose of nostalgia and retro moments. New York City has changed, but the photographer's curious and excited eye lives on.
Ulrich Rüter
All images on this page: © Willy Spiller, Courtesy of Bildhalle

Willy Spiller: Hell on Wheels+-


With texts by Bill Shapiro, Paul Nizon and Willy Spiller.
128 pages, 65 colour pictures, 32 x 24 cm, English.
Edition Bildhalle

Willy Spiller+-

Portrait_Willy Spiller
© Willy Spiller

The Swiss photographer, Willy Spiller, was born in 1947 and grew up in the Zurich Highlands; today he lives and works in Zurich. In 1968, he graduated from studies in Photography at the Zurich School of Art and Design (ZHDK). This was followed by extended stays in Milan, Africa, Latin America and six years in New York. For 45 years, Spiller has been working on assignment as a photojournalist and freelance photographer for international newspapers, magazines, agencies and companies. His multifaceted oeuvre ranges from artistic photography and photojournalism to experimental film. His work has been widely exhibited and received numerous honours. Publications include Pictures of a Local Reporter and Subway New York (1986). Edition Bildhalle published his book Zürich 1967-1976, in 2019.  More


Book tip: Hell on Wheels – New York Subway 1977–1984

Willy Spiller