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New York Underground

When the Muse Is a Train

Photographs by Travis Ruse

TUNNEL VISION Travis Ruse and, below, images from his Web log capturing a year's worth of commuting from Park Slope to Midtown.

Published: December 25, 2005

ON Tuesday, as the city awoke to a transit strike and semipanicked questions about how to get around, perhaps no one was more befuddled by the subway closures than Travis Ruse, a soft-spoken 37-year-old photo editor who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Mr. Ruse, who works at a magazine in Midtown, has spent the past year snapping photos of his commute, which he generally edits down to one shot and posts each night on a photo Web log (www.travisruse.com). The Web site has attracted a small but dedicated following; about 1,500 people a day, from as far away as Australia, log on to view the kind of familiar subway scenes that elicit nostalgia among former New Yorkers and wonderment among out-of-towners: crowds of riders packed into cars like sardines; express trains whooshing by in a silvery blur.

Mr. Ruse takes his documentary project seriously. "I felt by photographing not just the subway, but specifically during the commuter hours, I could relay a picture of the working masses of N.Y.C.," he wrote on his blog. Upon passing the one-year mark this month, Mr. Ruse posted a comment thanking everyone who "stuck it out and watched every day."

Although subway service resumed Friday, for a few days earlier in the week, the project seemed in serious limbo.

On the first day of the strike, Mr. Ruse, who has fluffy brown hair and an earnest manner, caught a ride into Manhattan with a friend and went to Grand Central Station. He seemed genuinely out of sorts. "I thought I would come here because this is where my commute ends each morning," he said as he wandered around the mostly empty station, a Canon 20D dangling around his neck.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Ruse had visited his regular station, the N/R stop at Fourth and Prospect Avenues in Brooklyn, which, like the rest of the system, was closed. Waiting for a police officer to pass, he ducked under a barricade and sneaked inside. "We've all been on an empty platform late at night, but this was rush hour," he said mournfully. "It was weird. I kept hearing what I thought were footsteps." Mr. Ruse took some photos of the empty platform. As he was walking out, he felt a rush of wind and ran back downstairs to see a train mysteriously rumble by.

In Grand Central, he walked to a subway entrance he uses near 42nd Street. The area was cordoned off by a steel fence, and the escalators sat idle. Mr. Ruse began snapping photos, framing one shot to include a young woman in suede boots who was talking on a pay phone. "The pictures I take are of the little moments," he said. A police officer watched Mr. Ruse suspiciously.

When Mr. Ruse first began taking photos in the subway, and for a long time after, he would get stopped by undercover transit officers who, he recalled, were hostile and always seemed to be wearing New Jersey Jets shirts ("It's like the official uniform of undercover transit cops," he said). Now Mr. Ruse carries a copy of a letter he requested from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which states that, strictly speaking, taking photos in the subway is not illegal. (What is illegal is using equipment like a tripod without a permit).

In the course of his project, Mr. Ruse has developed a fondness for the transit system, and he seems unfazed by the various inconveniences of riding the subways. Not long ago, when a fire broke out at a station downtown, his train sat under the East River for an hour. "And I was standing up," he recalled. "But how often do I get stuck under the East River? I began to think, is there a picture here?"

Leaving Grand Central, Mr. Ruse crossed 42nd Street and entered an office building, where a stairwell led to an underground concourse that contained another subway entrance and a few shops. Nearly all the stores were closed, and the space had an eerie, abandoned feeling, like that of a city in a disaster movie. Mr. Ruse approached the turnstile, which was locked. A young man stood on the other side, eating potato chips.

"How did you get in there?" Mr. Ruse asked, clicking away.

It was explained that the man ran a newsstand in the station, and when he couldn't reach his boss for instructions, he simply opened for business, selling newspapers to nobody. The person doing the explaining was a police officer, who told Mr. Ruse to get lost.

"I've got a letter from the M.T.A.," Mr. Ruse said.

That night, it took Mr. Ruse three hours to get home, and he was sullen. Yes, there was the rare chance to photograph a transit strike for his blog, but, he said, he was more interested in commuters; without them, the project seemed to lose meaning. "I'm not sure how many different pictures you can make of an absence of everything," he said.

Mr. Ruse chose the day's blog entry - before-and-after shots of the platform at the Prospect Avenue station - and went to bed. On the second day of the strike, he rode his bike to work. For the first time in more than a year, he didn't take his camera.

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