The Sudden Chaos of New York in the 70’s & 80’s in 12 Inspiring Photos

Mar 11, 2020
4 min read

Modern New York might be known for its shinny and trend-setting character, a pace of opportunities, a place where everything happens and a city that never sleeps. It could also be regarded as a playground for the rich, speaking of economic value of New York. But it wasn’t always like that though, the Big Apple had its worms at certain points of its life where it struggled on every level and there is no better indicator of class struggle than the street itself. We’re talking about the notorious 1970s and 80s.

The time when the city became notorious for its high crime rates, financial instability and general decline in life quality, which was conveniently captured in the ‘American City Suite’, a popular song by Cashman & West in 1972. New York was slowly falling apart but the streets were ecstatic in their chaos. Prostitutes and Pimps occupying Times Square, Central Park was being widely avoided by ‘normal’ people because of sudden increase in rape and rob rates. Fiscal crisis hit hard, people left their homes and drug addicts occupied the empty buildings. There was corruption, there was crime, there was uncertainty in the air. And there were some photographers, capturing the everyday life.

We’re presenting a collection of New York photographers from the notorious 70s and 80s, that managed to capture the beat of the impulsive generation. They certainly provoke a nostalgic feeling for the time and place most of us didn’t even experience. Small family shops, barbershops, parties like there was no tomorrow, the misfits ruling the streets.

Paul McDonough

Paul has been taking photos for more than 40 years now and his artwork is known for emphasizing resistance. He approaches his subjects swiftly, like he’s always in a hurry trying to catch one specific moment that would only last for so long.

Paul McDonough: New York Photographs 1968-1978

Like a painter making a quick sketch with a pencil before applying his whole work on canvas. And Paul probably got this approach from painting, which was his initial passion before turning to streets. Unlike same comfort of his painting studio, the streets offered a dynamic environment, even dangerous, so to speak; and it just felt more real to him.

But it wasn’t until 1967, when he moved to New York, that the photography finally ‘met his pulse’, as he would say. New York is where he disciplined himself to take camera with him at all times, loaded with ISO 400 speed film. Soon he developed his unique style of showing the thin line between fiction and the harsh truth of street life.

Martha Cooper

Subway Art

While working as a photojournalist during 70s and 80s, she crossed path with many emerging and less known artists on streets of New York. Before turning her photography passion into a remarkable career, she would study ethnology and photojournalism, where she gained a profound understanding of the American subcultures, which would prove very useful later on in her career. 

Her famous snaps of graffiti crews take us into the elusive underground scene. She would go on and become an icon between graffiti artists and underground subcultures. In 1984, she also published a book ‘Subway Art’ together with fellow photographer Henry Chalfant.

Janet Delaney

Public Matters

Although highly engaged in her native West Coast, Janet Delaney made several remarkable trips to then more conservative New York, where she captured the growing social inequality during 80s.

While quality of life was decreasing, the society was getting unhappy, the political governance was regressing and the progressive ideas would emerge. And this is where Janet Delaney liked to be.

She was feeding of crowds of people, be it gatherings, demonstrators, dancers, salesman, workers, models, kids, collectors, the old, the young, she was there to capture them. She was capturing the social change as it was born in the place where it’s always born – the streets. It’s said that he favorite camera was the Mamiya 7.

Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson: In Color

An iconic photographer who fell in love with the New York subway after he left military in late 50s. He captured what later on proved to be one of the most dangerous eras of public transport, when people needed to be on guard at all times, especially during the night. Crime rates escalated and he was there to document it.

He was a tourist with a camera in his own city.  His style was compromised of getting personal with his subjects, capturing the mood as it changes. He would shoot both black & white or colour on some Leica M and 28mm lens, depending on his current mood


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