Seymour Licht’s photos of subway Halloween costumes are a time capsule of terror

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For the last 20 years, photographer Seymour Licht has been taking pictures of costumed Halloween revellers on the New York subway. Now, the choicest snaps have been gathered together in his new book, Halloween Underground, which acts as a time capsule of spooky seasons from years gone by.

Halloween is just around the corner, and the scariest day of the year wouldn’t be complete without an appropriately terrifying outfit. But while costumes make you fit in at a Halloween party, they create a compelling contrast when placed next to the gritty banality of the real world. And it’s this juxtaposition Seymour Licht captures perfectly in Halloween Underground.

The result of 20 years’ work, Halloween Underground is a collection of photographs captured by Seymour on the New York subway. Featuring everyone from Carrie to Catwoman, these costumes of everyday folk transformed into creepy characters are a snapshot and celebration of the city at its weirdest.

Halloween Underground can trace its roots back to 2002 when Seymour was awarded 500 roles in Fuji film after winning a photo contest. “Having no time due to a demanding day job, I started using my commuting hours on the subway to photograph people,” he tells Creative Boom.

“On that Halloween, I was struck by the clash of revellers garbed in freakish costumes mingling with the ordinary patrons in their unremarkable street clothes. Only on October 31 can you shape-shift your identity without so much as a sideways glance from your fellow passengers! You can go out in public dressed as a seductive witch, a pharaoh, your favourite superhero, or a sexy mermaid. Thus, my 20-year-long Halloween Underground series was launched.”

As well as drawing inspiration from Walker Evans’ iconic New York subway portraits from the late 1930s, Seymour was influenced by Arthur Tress’ social surrealism images and the short stories of Julio Cortazar and Edgar Allan Poe.

“I also kept returning to a poem by the German poet Erich K√§stner called Allegory of the Train,” he adds. “It suggests that ‘we are all riding on the same train. The conductor is adrift. No one knows their last stop when it’s their time to step onto the platform of the past.’

“When assembling the images, I tried to pair the ordinary commuters with the celebrants in their whimsical costumes. Then I realised that I had enough Halloween portraits for a book. I eliminated the 9 to 5ers and kept all the phantasmagoria.

“I asked Persephone James from the Poetry Society of New York to contribute a poem. And after twenty years of photographing, the book has almost become a time capsule.”

Seymour himself loves to party on Halloween and witness New York’s exuberant annual parade with its rafts of oversized string puppets. However, it sounds like they were a little too pristine for his artistic eye. “I found myself drawn to the disguised individuals below ground in this dimly lit, shadowy realm,” he says.

“The maze-like tunnels and murky catacombs invite comparisons to the underworld of ancient mythologies. This corresponds to the haunted spirit of Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead.”

Fortunately, the holiday spirit brings out people’s exhibitionist side, making photographing them easier. “Most people are preening for the camera,” Seymour reveals. “Usually, I ask permission to photograph, but when strapped for time, I follow the motto of a former mentor: ‘Shoot first, ask questions later!'”

He adds: “Occasionally, I gently direct people. I ask them to stand a certain way in front of a particular backdrop. Sometimes, I follow an intriguing person from the platform in the car or vice versa. I rarely use a strobe.”

Seymour is very selective regarding his images; sometimes, just two or three per year make the cut. When it comes to knowing which ones work, he looks out for uncanny, comical and absurd situations. “The documentary needs to lean into the surreal,” he adds. “It takes very little to move the needle.

“With my images, I am asking the viewer to suspend their disbelief: What if these otherworldly apparitions are real? Are these ghosts visiting from the other side? On Halloween, it is said that the boundaries between the living and the dead are the most porous. I see my subjects as the direct descendants of the first celebrants of this ancient Celtic holiday that evolved over two millennia.”

Seymour’s high standards have resulted in a remarkable collection of photos. But out of the 79 images in his book’s pages, one in particular stands out to him. “I have been captivated by the blood-soaked woman holding a bunch of roses,” he explains. “Over the years, it was as if she started talking to me.

“In reality, the woman was about to get off the train when I asked her to step back inside. I took the shot, and seconds later, she was gone. But it took me fifteen years to figure out the costume after someone exclaimed, ‘That’s Carrie from Steven King’.”

And as you’d expect, photographing costumed strangers on the subway results in some bizarre encounters. “One night while heading home, a train pulled up that appeared to be entirely empty,” says Seymour. “You don’t want to be alone on a train late at night in New York! I ran down the platform to find some humans and stepped into a car with a gigantic frog prince in it. No words were exchanged while I photographed the frog clutching the pole. That was an almost hallucinatory experience!”

To see the full collection of creepy costumes, visit Halloween Underground now.

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