“On Halloween, the antipathy to being photographed is rarely an issue. But the exhibitionist spirit of the holiday creates its own challenges. People love to preen for the camera in their costumes. While many of my subjects wore real masks, I aimed to capture the essence of their personae.” – Seymour Licht
For millennia, cultures around the world recognize and celebrate the short window between the end of October and the beginning of November as a special time. Three holidays, Halloween, the Mexican The Day of the Dead and the Catholic All Souls Day share a common pagan root: The remembrance of the departed.
New York City photographer Seymour Licht invested many years of Halloween evenings riding the subway and photographing costumed people in the trains and on the platforms. In his writing for his book, he drew the connection between the subway as a liminal space where patrons move from place to place and these holidays as a liminal time when the boundary between the living and the dead become blurred.
Originally the project began as a way to document the annual bombastic Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. But Licht followed his instincts and found himself drawn more to the isolated, solitary, disguised individuals below ground, mundanely awaiting the next train to arrive, or slouching in the train’s car awaiting their stop. The dichotomy between the outlandish and otherworldly apparitions and the act of normalcy that commuting implies fascinated Licht. For one evening a year, the subways feel cinematic, mythical, harboring stories and the possibility of suspension of disbelief.
In his writing about the project, Licht discusses the role of proximity and depth that the subway evokes. He notes, “Both the subway and Halloween have associations with death. The New York subway is located not ‘six feet under,’ but about 180 feet below ground at its deepest point. It can evoke a feeling of darkness, isolation, and claustrophobia. The maze-like tunnels and murky catacombs invite comparison to the underworld of ancient mythologies.”
The myriad outfits and masks become a kind of commentary on how the act of costuming can be an external reflection of our own history, knowledge, self-image, and persona. The individuals presented in this book are wearing purchased and homemade fantastical garbs from current popular culture such as Marvel action heroes like Iron Man, costumes reflecting traditional horror stories such as Count Dracula, and more generic shirts or fabrics slung over one’s head with eye holes cut out.
Licht’s patience and steady intention are reflected in both his meticulous composition and the traditional street photography genre the images evoke. This approach provides a commentary on artistic process and on the importance of allowing a project to evolve over time. On any given year, Licht may only yield 2-4 portraits he feels work. The photographs depict people inside the cars, on the passageways and stairs, the underground landscape of the subway systems becoming a character and metaphor for the scene setting on Halloween night.
Of his commitment to this project, Licht writes, “Halloween Underground is my tribute to this exuberant survivor of a holiday — and to all the creative, high-spirited New Yorkers who, one night every year, venture through the grime and dysfunction of the world’s largest subway. When we dress up for Halloween, we briefly transform this ordinary mass transit system into a world of fantasy, while in the end it transports us home.”
Seymour Licht is a fifth-generation photographer who grew up in a province in Germany that was the setting for many Brother’s Grimms tales. His work comprises environmental portraiture, surreal photography and psychologically charged narratives. He spent his formative years in Berlin and moved to New York City in 1989.
Seymour Licht : Halloween Underground
New York Subway Portraits
Trim size: 11 x 0.25 x 9 inches