Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Photographed May 21, 1905
It’s hypnotic. The simple progress of a subway car uptown seems banal today, but when it opened it was a technological miracle worthy of public interest.
Many films made during the first decade of the medium’s existence were “actualities”; that is, unedited reels of documentary film that captured far-off and exotic locations. The idea that movies could annihilate the frustrations of distance was a powerful one. For a time, many customers paid for a chance to see a place they might otherwise never visit, such as the Pyramids, the Rockies, and the like.
This film documents the recently opened New York subway, following a car as it made its rattling way along the system’s new tracks, along the line of the IRT #5 line that still runs under Park and Madison Avenues on Manhattan’s east side. Capturing the images was quite a project, requiring a train holding the camera to pace the subject car from behind, along with a companion car on a parallel track pacing the subject car and illuminating it with a bank of lights.
The effect is striking, a staccato rippling of light that’s simultaneously soothing and unnerving (early travelers were warned not to look at the scenery flashing by). The effect seems like a precursor of Dada’s absurd experiments with film, or Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell’s 1955 collaboration The Wonder Ring, which documented NYC’s soon-to-be-torn-down 3rd Avenue elevated train.
The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.