For many, Halloween in New York City is a bigger deal than Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Kwanza, Easter, Fourth of July, and their own birthdays and anniversaries combined. Drawing some two million spectators and more than 60,000 costumed weirdos, Manhattan's annual mile-long march is the world's largest Halloween parade and it is, hand's down, the greatest free Halloween experience anywhere. Although I fancy myself more of a " Christmas Guy," some of my greatest Halloween memories are tied to that parade and walking the streets of NYC while tripping out on all the amazing costume creations. Once my buddy, Chris Marshall (R.I.P.), asked me to take a photo of him pissing on the back of a guy dressed as NYPD who was, in reality, an actual police officer.
My friend and Brooklyn-based photographer Jonathan Mehring (who I recently interviewed about his new Nat Geo skate book Skate the World) lives and breathes Halloween. For the past couple years he's been spending his All Hallows Eve riding the rails around the five boroughs, documenting all the subterranean costumed happenings for an annual zine called Sub Halloween. The results are a stunning mix of festive, awkward, hilarious, and eerie. I sat Jonathan down to talk Halloween, street photography, and Rastafarian Batman.
VICE: What makes you want to spend your Halloweens in the subways of New York photographing costumed partygoers?
Jonathan Mehring: I like the subway because it takes people out of their element—it's not where you'd expect to see people in costume. People are just going from point A to point B. They're acting normal, as if they're going to work or something, but they're on a train in these great costumes. There is a surreal, bizarre, weird moment that happens once a year and I thought it would be cool to photograph.
How did this become your new Halloween tradition?
This will be the third year of shooting it, and actually the first year was kind of by accident. I only had my phone on me and I was wearing a half-assed costume and didn't feel like going to whatever my wife and I were going to so I just decided to stay in the subway the whole night and shoot on my phone. After that I knew I wanted to keep coming back every Halloween. It was so much fun. Now I don't make any plans to go to Halloween parties because I know I'm just going to stay underground all night.
Are people generally receptive to you taking their photos?
Yeah, that's one thing I like about it. It's a type of street photography, I suppose, but it's different in the sense that people are not surprised to have someone come at them with a camera on that day. There's something about street photography—whether or not it's disrespectful, it might be perceived that way by the subject and that makes me uncomfortable. On Halloween that layer is removed.
Would you consider yourself a "Halloween person"?
Yeah, you can call me a Halloween person. I get into it. The last couple years it's been less effort on the costume because ergonomically it can be a challenge with the camera. Last year I just wore my normal clothes and I put a single black dot on my forehead with a trickle of blood coming out of it. A few too many people commented on it. It drew a lot of attention to my face and was holding a camera there too.
What's the best costume you've seen so far?
Last year there was this girl who basically had a bikini made of neatly crushed down milk cartons with a Venetian mask on and a wig. She was sitting on this pile of crushed milk cartons in the train at the last stop of the L on 8 th Avenue. She was just sitting there in the middle of the aisle, then after a minute she stands up and you see she's sitting on this dude who was completely covered in milk cartons as well. They both slowly stood up, almost as if they were performing and then he sat back down and she sat back on top of him.
Another moment I liked from last year was this guy in a clown costume who was acting like an asshole on a train packed full of people. He had been in a fight right as I walked up to the window and people were pulling the other guy out of the train car. He leans up to the window because the dude that he was fighting was right next to me and flipped off the guy. I just liked the crazy looking clown giving the finger.
What's usually the vibe on the trains between the regular folk and those in costumes?
I guess it's 90% costumed people, but generally the people that are not in costumes are fucking over it. They're either bummed that they're surrounded by a bunch of people who are going to a party or coming from one and they're not part of it or they're just upset that the train is super crowded.
You ditched your wife the first year to go shoot by yourself, but has it become a date night for you two since then?
No. She's a photographer as well and we do shoot together from time to time, but I operate best on my own. I like these kinds of situations better solo so I can just go where the wind takes me. I feel like it's more productive that way. When you're with someone you're going to act differently and go different places because you're going to be working together, whereas when you're alone you can just be like, "Oh, there's an open door. Let me jump on this train now."
The subway is pretty sanitized these days. You see early 80s subway photos and they look so much cooler than the sterile mode of transportation we know today.
There's a Bruce Davidson book called Subway and goddamn, man, I wish it still looked like that. It had so much character. I get inspired by certain street photographers who work today and still find these moments that are worth looking at because when I think of old New York street photography it's like, man, how can you ever top that? It was grimy back then and had that gritty look that is 90 percent gone. I think it's a mistake to look for that now, though. It is what it is.
I feel like old New York street photography's purpose was to document decay, whereas now it serves to document gentrification.
Yeah, you can make an argument for that. I really like the idea of street photography, and maybe I just haven't done it enough to be comfortable with it. I still prefer settings like Halloween because it's part surrealism and part comedy in a way, with people letting go of their inhibitions.
Lastly, do you think Halloween is the best night to rob someone in New York City?
It probably happens often.