Hell on Wheels by Willy Spiller, reviewed by Sophie de Rakoff

New York in the late 1970’s was a place of utter exoticism to a European. A frigid, snow covered tundra in the winter, come summer it was a hot and humid zoo of humanity, heaving and turbulent in a way that held it’s more restrained counterparts like Paris and London in awe.


Garbage spilled onto the streets, steam rose from vents, cab drivers spoke no English, or if they did it was so heavily accented that every conversation was a journey in itself. Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Soho, Queens, The Bronx, the Upper West Side: each neighborhood had it’s own unique demographic. But running through all, and into the far reaches of Brooklyn and Coney Island was the notorious New York Subway system. An intimidating subterranean world to many visitors, it was (and is) in reality the ceaseless heart of the city, it’s pumping arteries carrying millions of people daily from one borough to the next.


After the city’s financial near-collapse in 1975, the New York Subway System gained a reputation as a lawless, dangerous micro-universe where only a fool would dare to venture. But in reality, it was a democracy; it made the beauty and ugliness of New York accessible to all who choose to ride it. And among them was Willy Spiller, a young Swiss photographer who came to NY in 1977, who documented his daily journeys through the Underground until he left in 1984.


Martin Scorsese, Bruce Davidson, Woody Allen, Susan Sontag, Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin, Sydney Lumet, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Fran Liebowitz and Susan Sontag. The list of great artists that captured New York both in fact and in fiction defined an era, and elevated the troubled city of that time to a now iconic status. And all the while, other artists unknown and unseen, documented their New York in their way, telling parallel stories that we are still discovering today, as the appetite for New York stories remains undiminished.


And as often happens when an outsider looks at a city with an objective gaze, the story is told from a different angle, with a different perspective. Whereas another European photographer Miron Zownir seemed to find a colorless New York that was brutal and cruel above ground (NYC RIP) and Japanese photographer Keizo Kitajima’s New York was one of sharp graphic angles and outrageous social interaction; Willy Spiller’s Hell On Wheels, ironically, seems to be a ceaseless through a sympathetic human landscape brought to life by the fluorescents that lit the NY Subway night and day.


Leather clad cops, school girls, subway drivers, commuters, white, black, Puerto Rican, male and female, young and old; Spiller’s world shows the democratic forest of NY at those moments in time. Lovingly edited, the first few pages start small, with thumbprint images popping out of the black pages like moments between stations caught from a moving window. Progressing through the book, the visual journey echoes a journey on the Subway system itself. We meander down the ubiquitous stairs onto the platforms, then in and out of carriages until we surface for air in the far-flung corners of the three boroughs. Above ground, shafts of light cut and illuminate Spillers subjects, then we journey back underground as small glimpses of intimacy continue to unfold. 3 cops gathered around a newspaper stand reading the headlines, A young black couple smile at the camera, framed by steel and graffiti, and a few pages on an attractive transvestite, glamorous but aloof, holds the camera in her iron gaze. And as perfectly captured by the cover image, a gaggle of louche teenage girls splay themselves across the seats, blonde hair gleaming against the scratched and cloudy windows.


Steeped in nostalgia, Hell On Wheels speaks of a lost city that inevitably no longer exits 30 years on. A golden era of the high-low subcultures that made New York so unique, this monograph encourages the continuing fascination with the New York of yesteryear, in an homage both satisfying and rich in its simplicity.


Hell on Wheels by Willy Spiller can be purchased here.


Sophie de Rakoff is a London born, Los Angeles based costume designer who looks at a lot of photographs and buys a lot of books.