During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, New York City’s subway system was one of the most dangerous places a person could be. Lucky for those of us who never had the chance to see it, Swiss photographer Willy Spiller was there, and the dark and atmospheric series of photos he took has now come to be known as Hell On Wheels.
These photographs are a joyous and soulful trip in the bygone era of the New York subway system. The photographer Willy Spiller, living in New York at the time, documented his underground travels with the curiosity of a foreigner, fascinated by the rush and the madness of its time.
It’s the period of the first rap music, graffiti, The Warriors in the cinema, Guardian Angels on the trains, and Ed Koch in charge of a broke and crime-riddled city. Willy Spiller’s images are as much a visual document of this incomparable realm as they are a syncopated, colorful poem to the city of New York and its people.
Unfortunately, Willy Spiller also witnessed a spike in crime, a large portion of which took place in the city’s underground quarters. The rate of violent incidents in the New York subway was so high by 1980 that the NYPD had over 2,300 police officers patrolling the system at all times. Spiller took his chances and documented what he saw.
Though the photos were first released in 1984, Hell On Wheels had its glory restored in 2016. Sturm & Drang publishers put Spiller’s work to print in a limited edition series of hardcover, vivid color coffee table books.
“These images hardly tell a story of crime and danger,” Dr. Tobia Bezzola writes in the book’s chilling forward. “Willy Spiller doesn’t discover darkness in the underground but rather an idiosyncratic, vivid realm of its own.”
(Photo credit: Willy Spiller).