INTERIOR NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY 14TH STREET TO 42NS STREET
(G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, 1905, USA, 6m, BW)
INTERIOR NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY 14TH STREET TO 42NS STREET (G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, 1905, USA, 6m, BW)
Director: Billy Bitzer
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Starring: Unknown subway riders
Run Time: 6 Min
When New York's Interborough Rapid Transit system opened in October of 1904, it was hailed as an engineering marvel, and people across America expressed wonder and curiosity about what it was like to move swiftly below the surface of the nation's biggest and busiest city. Within seven months of the subway's opening, G. W. Bitzer provided an answer, taking a Biograph camera underground to film this "actuality" film. The bulky photographic apparatus was mounted on the front of a train trailing just behind the one being filmed, while a flatcar filled with lights traveled on a parallel track, providing illumination in the dark tunnel between Union Square and the old Grand Central Station. The result was an unprecedented view of the future of urban travel in the new twentieth century.
If you’re a New Yorker, you know this stretch of subway inside and out. You’ve schlepped from Union Square to Grand Central Station on the 4, 5, or 6 trains how many times? Probably more than you care to count. But don’t worry, you’re in good company. New Yorkers have been making this journey since 1904, and here we have some vintage video to prove it. Shot on May 21, 1905, seven months after the IRT subway line opened, the video shows a train moving uptown. And then, during the last minute, you can see the New Yorkers exiting the train, svelte and dressed to the nines. If you’re wondering how this clip was shot, let me add this: A camera was mounted on a subway train following another train on the same track. Lighting was provided by a specially constructed work car on a parallel track.
This is a surprisingly artful “actuality” film, showing the New York City subway for people all over the country who had only heard or read about it. This is a great example of how the cinema brought people from all over the country (and world) together, and established iconic images that everyone would recognize, even if they had never seen the original. This film consists of a single long shot taken from the front of a train following another train. The train we follow is in actual service – it stops at stations and lets people on and off, but “our” train (which we never see) simply keeps pace with it. Another train runs on the side track, with a platform full of lighting equipment, which makes it possible to see the train in front (and the tunnels), but it also sometimes comes into view of the camera. The train runs, according to the notes of cameraman Billy Bitzer, from 14th Street to 42nd, and we can see signs that say “Grand Central” when it pulls into the final station, which suggests that we are following the course of the modern-day 6 train, which I believe was part of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) line at the time. This train must be an express, because it doesn’t stop at all of the stations we pass through.
Interior New York Subway1Much of this film shows us racing along in a dark tunnel, with just the back of the train ahead of us visible. We only get a square of light, with the girders of the tunnel appearing and disappearing as the light passes over them, and then an occasional station, which we don’t see very well, because we are looking ahead, not to the sides. It’s a lot like what you see when you stare out the front of a subway train, which I have always found somewhat hypnotic. I should mention that I grew up in New York City, and I regularly rode the Subway for family outings (eg: to the Bronx Zoo) and later every day to get to High School. Today, many of my worst nightmares, or more precisely, anxiety dreams, are set in the subway system: usually the theme is that I have a destination, but I miss my stop, or go to the wrong tracks and can’t find a way to the right ones, or am otherwise prevented from getting to my destination. I have this dream most frequently when I am stressed out about a task which seems endless or impossible, or when I am feeling frustrated and hopeless. The images of this movie invoked that dream-landscape for me, but happily without the accompanying stress. I was able to accept that I was just along for the ride, and enjoyed it, knowing it would end soon enough.
Billy Bitzer - American cinematographer
Billy Bitzer, byname of Gottfried Wilhelm Bitzer (born April 21, 1874, Boston—died April 29, 1944, Hollywood) U.S. motion-picture cameraman who, in partnership with the pioneer director D.W. Griffith, developed camera techniques that set the standard for all future motion pictures and stimulated important experimentation in the field.
Bitzer achieved success in 1896 when his film of William McKinley being notified of the presidential nomination of his party was exhibited on the Biograph Company’s first program. He filmed the Spanish–American War for the William Randolph Hearst organization, becoming the first motion-picture cameraman to cover a war. When Griffith joined Biograph, Bitzer became his cameraman. During the ensuing years, Bitzer successfully translated the director’s creative visual concepts to the screen, especially in composition and the use of lighting to create mood. He photographed hundreds of Griffith’s motion pictures, including Judith of Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920).
Bitzer had been using lighting “effects,” such as firelight, candlelight, or the morning sun, as early as 1909; he was the first cameraman to film completely under artificial lights, an innovation that eventually freed Hollywood technicians from dependence on natural light. Working with Griffith, he developed camera techniques that had a permanent influence on the industry—e.g., soft-focus photography, using a light-diffusion screen in front of the camera lens; the fade-out, used to close a scene; and the iris shot, in which the frame either is gradually blacked out in a shrinking circle, thereby ending a scene, or gradually opened in a widening circle, beginning a scene. He refined methods of taking close-ups and long shots and was one of the first cinematographers to make effective use of perspective. Bitzer left Griffith in 1924 but briefly rejoined him in 1928. He later was a cameraman for the Works Progress Administration and repaired old films for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s film archive.
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