For 30 years, at no small risk to himself, Ryan Weideman drove a cab in New York City, drawn to the night shift. For this real life “Taxi Driver,” the inside of his vehicle served as a photo studio, while he captured with his camera more stories of the Naked City than he could count.
Weideman eventually turned his experiences into a book, In My Taxi: New York After Hours, and exhibits his work in shows held all over in the world.
It all began when Weideman decided to move from California to New York in 1980, not knowing much of the city except from films like Midnight Cowboy. He rented a cheap 200-square-foot apartment in Times Square, then known as “the Deuce,” the beacon for prostitutes and their pimps, porn cinemas, and drug dealers.
For the money, he drove a Checker Cab at night part-time, usually between 5 pm and 5 am.
“After the first week of driving a taxi I could see the photographic potential,” Weideman said in an interview. “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.”
Sometimes Weideman asked permission, sometimes his flash just went off. Occasionally he appeared in the photos himself.
What he captured was a black and white essence of the city.
According to Artsy, “By photographing the spectrum of characters comprising this burgeoning period — from models to poets, drag queens to celebrities, businessmen to prostitutes, Ryan Weideman skillfully transformed his taxicab into a highly-functional artist studio.
The mobile nature of his situation — the fact that he could immerse himself in the action, required the artist’s dexterity and certitude, allowing him to capture the spirit of the times in a fluid style all his own.”
“I was on the edge of my seat most of the time because I was caught up in the rush of the ride,” he told Huck Mag. Although the 12-hour shifts could be grueling, he never drank coffee or took drugs.
It was all the adrenaline that flowed from my driving style. I enjoyed the thrill of driving and the sense of competitiveness. Some people really loved it; others were scared and wanted out so I would have to drop them off. Once in a while, I would have a passenger that really enjoyed it. One guy jumped out of the cab and said, “My God, that was a religious experience!” Usually, he photographed people who flagged him down. Once in a while, he sought out his subjects.
In a story in My Modern Met, he said he recalled seeing a voluptuous woman walking down the street who reminded him of Ruby Duby Do. Running to catch up with her, he asked if she remembered being photographed in the back of a taxi, and to his delight, she did. “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.”
One of his famous fares was Alan Ginsberg. By that point, Weideman had published some of his own photographs, and he showed the poet his book while driving him home. When they reached the destination, Ginsberg asked for the receipt tape from the meter. Weideman handed it to him and waited a few minutes while Ginsberg set pen to paper.
“He wrote me a poem; I still have it,” Weideman told Huck Mag. “Then I did a self-portrait with him and he also took a photo of me. I printed them and found one that came out beautifully. It’s like a fortune cookie.”
An experience of another kind was when one day, “a long skinny guy in plaid trousers and matching plaid jacket got into his cab. Weideman looked over at the taxi next to him and the driver started grinning knowingly and shaking his head.”
On the trip uptown, Weideman chatted with the man in plaid. Finally, the man told him, “Hey, I was going to rob you – but you’re a nice guy.”
When they stopped, the passenger paid and got out. “He started to walk away and I yelled, ‘Hey buddy, you didn’t tip me!’ So he turned around, came back, and gave me a tip,” Weideman says.