In the 1980s the subway in New York was poorly run, poorly lit and considered dangerous. Photographer Bruce Davidson decided to head underground to embark on what he called 'a voyage of discovery'.

In Davidson's own words, 'I wanted to transform the subway from its dark, degrading, and impersonal reality into images that open up our experience again to the colour, sensuality, and vitality of the individual souls that ride it each day.' With its striking portraits ranging from gang members to a blind man, Subway is considered one of the finest photography projects ever completed. From his home in New York, Davidson talked to TateShots about the series.

The subway was relevant in 1979. It was full of graffiti, it didn’t run well, it was unsafe, and I felt compelled to go underground.

I found the subway very sensual, even sexual. I found the colour in the subway gave meaning, and that the subway could be anything: I could photograph a beast or I could photograph a beauty. And so there was a challenge going into the subway, because there was a little bit of nervous energy and apprehension, because at that time the subway was unsafe, particularly if you were walking around with an expensive camera.

New York Magazine asked me whether I would like to go with a group of subway undercover policemen, who dressed and acted in such a way to precipitate a robbery. This perpetrator came over to take my camera, but the backup police are in the car with me, they look more like a thief than the thieves. Billy, I think his name was, he immediately arrested the guy that was mugging me. So it’s really not what it looks like, but it’s what it feels like.

I’m in a crowded train. There was a man that interested me because he wore a bowler like you would find in England 50 years ago, and I take his picture with my flash. And then I excuse myself – I say, ‘I’m sorry, I had to do that; it was just a beautiful moment.’ He said, ‘I didn’t see it; I’m blind. I work at the lighthouse for the blind.’ I thought that was amazing, how you can misrepresent and misunderstand what you're looking at.

It was always about colour, and how colour expressed itself in the meaning of the subway at that time. I’m basically a black and white photographer, but that can change depending on what I’m doing. In the subway, it just called me to experiences and colour. I was using Kodachrome 64. It’s a slow speed film, but I chose it for its fidelity and its strength, and its beautiful palette. I use filters, no filters, flash, no flash. There was a variety of technical ways I photographed at that time.

Subway is an aesthetic experience. I’m not there to prove anything, but to show the multiplicity and layers of life in the New York subway at that time. It was a beautiful experience. It was like I was on a voyage of discovery. I didn’t need to go to the Serengeti plain – I could photograph the animals right there in front of me, and they were beautiful.