Summer in New York—and really every other season in the city—brings with it a familiar scene: a subway platform on which no platform is visible, the ground replaced by a mass of bodies jostling for position. On our latest cover, Christoph Niemann depicts this tradition in a wash of color. We recently talked to Niemann about the image.
You spent more a decade in New York before moving to Berlin. How does the public transit there compare?
The system is pretty big, trains run often—and yet people complain just as enthusiastically about everything that doesn’t work. Biking is a real alternative, though. I even started biking to the airport, weather- and luggage-permitting.
“I designed this N.Y.C. subway bathroom for my (subway-obsessed) kids when we relocated to Berlin,” Niemann said.
Crowded platforms are usually scenes of suffering, but you’ve created an almost charming portrait. Are you fond of the clamor?
Not when I need to get somewhere quickly! But I just love cities and people. Some places look better crowded: sidewalks, restaurants, bookstores, and, yes, subways. Beaches and airports I prefer empty.
Have you had an especially bad experience with packed subways?
When I travel, I usually take the subway to familiarize myself with the new surroundings. Mexico City has a great subway system—the signage alone is worth a ride. But, once I got a taste of a proper rush-hour crowd there, I only made it down to the mezzanine, and then I had to admit that I wasn’t up to the challenge. The crowd was just too tight. I squeezed my way back up and ended up walking back to the hotel for two hours.
The endpapers of Niemann’s book, “Abstract City,” double as a “humble suggestion for an enhanced M.T.A. system.”
Many of your covers have been animated. At what point in the process do you decide to add motion? What are you looking to create?
When I come up with the idea, it’s all about the one image for print. The animation comes later. So much of the challenge of drawing a cover is to create a surprising image—something that is familiar but includes an unexpected twist. Extending this idea to an animation is often easier than you might think, because a time line has an organic element of revelation built in.
See below for more covers about riding the subway:
“On Her Way,” by Carter Goodrich
“Subway Man,” by Roz Chast
“Hell Train,” by Bob Staake