Stockholm's Subway Network is the World's Longest Art Walk

For tourists obsessed with beating the crowds, Covid-19 is a catch-22. With the world’s great attractions empty, it’d be the perfect time to travel, but they’re only empty because a deadly new virus has forced everyone to stay home.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to avoid the crowds once the pandemic is over. Like traveling in the off season. Buying tickets in advance. Or just visiting in the middle of the night when most normal people are sleeping. It’s how David Altrath toured and photographed Stockholm’s surprisingly arty metro last year. “It seemed like I was the only person there,” he says.

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In New York, Friendships Run Along Subway Lines Stockholm’s metro—or tunnelbana as the Swedish call it—bills itself as “the world’s longest art exhibition,” and that’s no exaggeration. Since construction began in 1950, some 250 artists have decorated 94 stations across 68 miles of track (by contrast, the Louvre’s exhibits run nine miles long). Many of the stops look like caves a troll might inhabit, their blasted bedrock walls sprayed with a thin layer of concrete, then adorned with intricate murals, reliefs, and even LED sculptures. In the Mörby Centrum Station, a frosted white ceiling and candy-colored tiles conjure childhood visions of the North Pole. In Solna Centrum Station, flaming red walls evoke hell—though a clean, heavenly version of it. “The floor is so shiny, you could eat off it,” Altrath says.
Altrath hadn’t realized Stockholm’s metro was so cool before visiting from Hamburg, Germany, last September. He and a friend rode the train in, emerging at the brightly lit T-Centralen Station, where the system’s three lines meet. An intricate blue and white mural enveloped vast walls and ceilings, giving him the feeling he’d entered a more magical world. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” he says.Abandoning all his sightseeing plans, Altrath spent the next two nights exploring stations on the red and blue lines, starting around dinnertime, when traffic was lighter and he didn’t have to wait so long for commuters to clear out of the shot. After the trains stopped running at 1 am, he hailed Ubers from station to station until 5 am, when they started back up.
Translating the metro’s three-dimensional awesomeness into two-dimensional images proved tricky. Straight lines are crucial when shooting architecture, but since camera lenses are curved, those at the frame’s edge can appear crooked. Flattening them required using a special tilt-shift lens that can shift a few degrees without the camera moving, enabling Altraath to capture the entire scene in multiple overlapping segments. Later in Photoshop, he joined the unwarped parts together to create single panoramic images.
They show off Stockholm’s incredible subterranean art, though the absence of people also brings to mind the current pandemic, which has triggered the desertion of public space around the world. In Europe, public transit systems have cut service, with ridership in some cities plunging to near zero. Despite Swedish authorities failing to enact strict social distancing rules, passenger rates in Stockholm have fallen by 50 percent. Though officials advise against riding the rails unless you really have to, Altrath’s images let you do so anyway—from the safety of your home.
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