Friday, October 5, 2012

Taking the E Train, a tale about the New York subway system - Margaret Ullrich

     I got my first camera after I received my First Communion in 1957.  The camera was a Kodak brownie.  No flash.  The lens stayed in one spot.  You aimed and shot.

     My Aunt Helen had thought the gift pack - a camera and one roll of film - would make a nice present.  My folks didn't care.  Well, Pop said, "What the hell is that?" and Ma thought I needed more clothes but, well, a gift's a gift.

     I brought my camera on a school outing to Manhattan's Central Park Zoo and took pictures of the animals. 
     Then the film hit the fan. 
     Processing and printing cost money.  There wasn't a gift certificate to cover that.  So, muttering something about the quality of his sister's brains, Pop paid for the pictures and put the camera in a safe place.

     I never saw it again.

     Ten years later, when I was at Pratt Institute studying for my BA in Merchandising, Photography waltzed back into my life.  The whole j'ne'se'qua of Merchandising is to convince people to buy things.  We had to learn to take pictures that said, "Come and get me, Big Boy!  Ya gotta have me!  BUY ME!!"

     Okay.  Pop had seen pictures in ads in the New York Daily News, so learning Photography made sense to him.  He didn't like buying me a camera, but he understood that I needed it for my homework.  Pop was relieved when I told him that I'd process the film and print the pictures at school.  No extra charge. 

     Pratt Institute prided itself on having teachers who were professionals in their fields.  Our Photography teacher, Mr. Freed, was also working on a project about his travels with his girlfriend for a Life Magazine Library of Photography book.  His assignment consisted of pictures that had been taken in a string of dingy motels.  They were not posed, beautifully lit or product oriented.  

     We saw his work and agreed.  It was Life with a capital L.  It was ugly.  It was gritty.  We wouldn't have gone near those motels if our lives depended on it.

     It was the late 60s and the Photography class was heady stuff.  Mr. Freed set us on fire.  "Capture Life"  was his motto.  We didn't know if he meant "Capture Life" as we lived it or a nice fat Life Magazine contract.  We just shot anything we saw and waited for Mr. Freed to tell us if we'd Caught Life.     
     Mr. Freed introduced us to Capa's dramatic pictures from the Spanish Civil War, Brassai's frank revelations of Parisian life, Lange's wrenching scenes of the Depression and Cartier-Bresson's stirring reportages of Spain.  If an ad was supposed to show hell on earth, we were learning how to do it.  

     I didn't have time to go to Europe and the Depression was over, so I had to Capture Life in New York.  I shot everything: animal, vegetable and mineral.  Anybody who sat still within ten feet of me was in danger of being immortalized.  

     But, something was missing.  
     I needed a theme.  
     I needed something frightening, something awful.  
     So, I went to the New York Subway System.

     Armed with a Honeywell Pentax H1A camera I tried to Capture Life.  And for an hour, I did.  I took pictures of people buying tokens, people running for trains, people caught between subway doors, people squeezed together standing in the cars and people sleeping through their rides to work.  I took pictures of trains entering and leaving the station.  Then I noticed a Transit cop signaling me.  So I waved, took his picture and ran off to Capture Life. 

     I ran and shot and waved to all the nice policemen who waved to me.  Who said New Yorkers - especially New York City cops - were unfriendly?  

     Then I turned a corner and nearly ran into four New York City Transit policemen.  They also waved at me.  Neat!  I'd get a group shot of four of New York's finest.  I aimed my camera.
     Then one of them yelled,  "What the hell do you think you're doing?"  
     "I am Capturing Life."
     One officer bellowed, "Get your butt over here.  Now!" 
     Ah, the gritty vernacular of real life.  I got my butt over.
     "Where's your permit?"

     Permit?  Mr. Freed never mentioned a permit.  Did Capa, Brassai, Lange or Cartier-Bresson have a permit?  I didn't need no stinking permit.  
     I just smiled and repeated, "I am Capturing Life."

     Slowly, as if speaking to an idiot, the bellower explained that I needed a permit.  
     I explained that I was doing my college assignment.  
     He rolled his eyes.  Great.  A college kid.  
     Knowing he was speaking to an idiot, he said I could go to jail.  
     I was thrilled.  Cool!  What a theme!  I'd ace the course and get a spread in Life Magazine!   
     "Wow!  Thank you!  I can Capture Life in Jail!" 
     "No," he explained very slowly, "You can't Capture Life in Jail.  I'm saying - now listen very carefully - we can throw you into jail.  Without your camera."

     Now, I had my priorities.  I had a non-refundable ticket for an upcoming rock concert.  I'd just about used up a whole roll of film.  And I had to turn in my assignment that morning.  

     Well!  It was the 60s.  I knew my rights.  
     I wailed.  I blubbered.  I apologized.  
     I swore I wouldn't take any more train pictures.  
     I guess they had kids in college, too.
     "Shaddup, already.  Take your camera and get your butt to school."

     I got my butt to school.  
     Mr. Freed said I had Captured Life.  
     I went to the concert.  
     It was better than going to jail. 


  1. Sounds like it was quite a "capturing life" kind of day for you, Margaret. I've never been in jail, but, unfortunately have had the experience of visiting others in jail - not fun. Glad you missed it.

  2. I'm glad I missed it, too, Peggy. And wouldn't you know, my husband Paul is a huge train fan. He and his fellow train club friends can spend a whole day taking pictures of trains as they pass through the prairies. There's a train photo contest held every year. Some pictures are quite nice.


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