“As a photographer-taxi driver, I never find it very difficult to ask people for pictures. I know I have to move quickly because we may have only 10 or 20 blocks to go.
When stopping for a fare, I look the passengers over, greet them and introduce myself as a photographer.
I tell them about the portraits that I take of people who ride in my taxi, and then I ask if I can photograph them. Little do they know when they step into my taxi, they’re stepping into my studio.” – Ryan Weideman, In My Taxi – New York After Hours
New York’s iconic yellow taxis and their stereotypically-cantankerous drivers have been featured in movies, artwork and stories. But, for twenty years, one cab driver turned the lens around, focusing on the passengers he ferried to their destinations. Ryan Weideman’s passenger photographs document New York’s nightlife from the early 80’s to the late 90’s, an array of colorful characters shot in black and white.
Weideman’s photos feature punks and poets, sex workers and schoolchildren, drunks and dog-owners — essentially, anyone you can find in the back of a cab between 5pm and 5am on weekends. And, while he initially started driving a taxi as a side job to support his photographic ambitions, his backseat shots have become iconic all on their own, a testament to a side of New York that no longer truly exists.
“I came to New York because I’m a photographer, and I wanted to do my work, and I was influenced by all these amazing, amazing photographers. I thought, yeah, this is the place i want to go. I had no idea. I looked around first things first, I wandered around the city with my camera, getting turned around, not knowing where in the hell I was but having a good time.” – Ryan Weideman, Artists In Residence TV, 2017
Weideman grew up in Oklahoma, to parents who lost their ancestral farm during the Great Depression. As a child, he was deeply influenced by his parents’ photo album of the ordeal. “When they lost the farm, my parents recorded all the episodes they went through with their Brownie: pictures of farmers standing around at the auction where all their equipment was being sold off, and of the lines of automobiles parked up on the dirt road that led to our farm. They’re beautiful pictures. They inspired me.”
In interviews, Weideman is often reluctant to talk about his childhood. He struggled with what he describes as parental “abandonment” and often got in trouble with the law for “misdemeanours,” including one he refuses to disclose that saw him asked to leave his town for a year. After a stint in the army, Weideman did his MFA at California College of Arts and Crafts, and moved to New York to work as a photographer.
“The first night out is dreary and raining. Around midnight on the Lower East Side, a lone figure signals me from the shadows. A woman gets in, but as I begin to pull away, she says, ‘Just a moment, my friend is coming.’ I see a mysterious male figure approaching, and I’m a little scared. He gets in and tells me where we’re going. As a new driver in town, I make a wrong turn. Sensing my ignorance, he gets angry. At the time I’m essentially a farm boy, [having grown up in Oklahoma and then Kansas] … and I’m finding New Yorkers abrasive. People like this late-night fare can be very condescending, attempting to put me in my place. Some carry on like I’m not even there.” – Ryan Weideman, In My Taxi – New York After Hours
When Weideman arrived in New York in 1981, he rented out a tenement apartment on West 43rd Street, which, at the time, was still a rough area of the city. Although he still wanted to be a photographer, he wasn’t sure “how to pay the rent.” Searching for a lucrative second job, he followed his neighbor across the hall, a taxi driver who invited Weideman to join him on one of his shifts.
Initially, taxi driving was both fascinating and frustrating for Weideman. He enjoyed the unusual progression of people that he saw in his cab, but found the “dense” daytime traffic unbearable. After a week, he quit his daytime shift. and asked for a night shift, from 5pm to 5am. Weideman would keep this night-owl schedule for the rest of his time as a driver.
Other frustrating aspects of his job were more difficult to change. As Weideman reports in his 1991 book In My Taxi – New York After Hours, he started photographing passengers as a response to “displace rage” that he felt due to “the social inequities inherent in taxi driving.” Taking photos of his passengers was his way to break down the social barrier between driver and passenger, to become “part of the fun.”
“After the first week of driving a taxi I could see the photographic potential,” shared Weideman. “So many interesting and unusual combinations of people getting into my cab. Photographing seemed like the only thing to do. The backseat image was constantly in a state of flux, thronged with interesting looking people that were exciting and inspired, creating their own unique atmosphere.” — Ryan Weideman, In My Taxi – New York After Hours
Once he started photographing his passengers, Weideman began to enjoy his job. “At first,” Weideman writes, I photograph whoever gets into my taxi, but soon I see and feel what it is I’m looking for – something awkward, powerful, idiosyncratic, or bizarre that inspires my vision.” Working at night allowed Weideman to allay his frustration at Manhattan’s impossible gridlock, and also gave him access to some of New York’s most fascinating citizens.
In his “studio on wheels” – a seven-seater Checker cab – Weideman documented weekend traffic with the seasoned eye of a professional. His method was basic: he mounted his flash on the sun visor of the cab using rubber bands, and shot from the front seat. Generally, he would ask for permission before he shot, but sometimes he’d simply say, “Don’t move, I’m a photographer,” and started photographing.
Although some passengers were initially wary of the camera-toting driver, most were eventually won over by the idea of being photographed. Weideman remembers seeing a former passenger on the street: “I told her to meet me on the corner of 9th and 43rd the next day and I would share my pictures of her. She was thrilled, and so was I. When I gave her some pictures, she thanked me, and as we parted. I watched her show the photos to the passersby as she walked away.”
In 1987, New York switched out the Checker cabs for sturdy Chevies, which had a thick plastic divider meant to protect the driver from passenger harassment. The shift necessitated a corresponding shift in Weideman’s art style; feeling isolated from his passengers, he started including himself in the photographs.
One of the most famous of these photographs, taken in 1990, features poet Allen Ginsberg smiling in the backseat. The famous writer composed a poem on the back of the receipt: “Backseat of a New York Taxi is a human zoo. Ryan Weideman taxi-dermist has mounted these human species with humor and boldness and precision.” It was signed, “A passenger Allen Ginsberg.”
“I published a book in 19991 after two decades of driving and photographing, and I came up with a title (In My Taxi), and I put together all the photographs that I wanted to put in the book, and shopped it around to different publishers. It took a while, six months or so, and finally Thunders’ mouth press sent me a contract, and I just held onto it for weeks, I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what the importance of that really meant.” – Ryan Weideman, Artists In Residence TV, 2017
By 1991, Weideman had hundreds of photos of his passengers, so he brought them together, hoping to publish a book. In My Taxi: New York After Hours featured an introduction written by Weideman himself, discussing how he got into driving and what it was like to be a cab driver on the streets of NYC. The photos in his book stood on their own, without dates or captions.
The publication of In My Taxi earned Weideman a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant given out for “exceptional creative ability in the arts.” Nevertheless, he continued driving. “I’m still out there; I’m staying connected.” he told newspapers at the time. “Plus, I would like to make some home improvements.”
In the years after receiving his grant, Weideman travelled across America, flipping the camera from the passenger to the driver. He has photographed hundreds of cab drivers in his portable studio tent, his status as a fellow driver giving him a privileged viewpoint into the subculture.
“They’re outsiders,” Weideman told Christina Madden of The Independent in 1996. “Self- exiled, a disenfranchised community apart. These are individuals, and they’re proud of that. Like one guy said to me, “taxi driving has no future, but it has one hell of a moment!”
“By photographing the spectrum of characters comprising this burgeoning period ― from models to poets, drag queens to celebrities, business men to sex workers ― Ryan Weideman skillfully transformed his taxicab into a highly-functional artist studio,” ― The Bruce Weinstein gallery, which represents Weideman, on his work
In some ways, Weideman’s older photographs are a window into a place that no longer exists. The New York of the 1980’s and early 1990’s was infamously criminal, dirty, and violent, but many residents believe that the city lost much of what made it vital during the project to clean it up.
Even the taxi industry, one of the city’s most iconic symbols, isn’t what it used to be. Taxi medallions, the permits that allow taxi drivers to operate their own cabs, now run hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the popularity of ridesharing apps like Uber mean that many drivers are losing money on them. In the face of these changes, Weideman’s work is as poignant as it is vibrant, his subjects blissfully unaware that they belong to a rapidly-shrinking world.
“Working the tragic/magic streets of New York, I’m saturated by my environment. Fusing two roles in my work, I get a double dose of reality. The images of my passengers give me a vision of the City — its wit, style, pain and alienation. And for me, photographing brings harmony from the urban chaos. Those experiences help clarify my role as photographer — and relieve the solitude I face in the front of my cab.” – Ryan Weideman, In My Taxi – New York After Hours