He was born in 1947 in Zürich, Switzerland. And he has pretty much kept that as his home base. However, between 1977 and 1985 he lived in New York and L.A. New York City of the ’70s and ’80s was unique at the time. Certainly not the NYC of today. So, the simple documenting became a bigger than life story when viewed from a different time. A lost era. Whether he was riding on the subway, documenting the dancers at Studio 54, the hip-hop culture in the Bronx or the golden west coast poolside life of L.A., Spiller captured all the idiosyncrasies of days gone by.
But he combined his curiosity for not only the gaudy, overdone lifestyles, but also managed to infuse his humanity for the individual. Like fellow contemporaries pounding the same beat, like Charles H. Traub, he seemed to prefer color to display the fast paced, carnival atmosphere on the street. Using the stealthy Leica M3, he could remain almost undetected when required.
While the present day New York City subway system is fairly mundane, it was the wild west during those years. Some say one of the most dangerous places a person could be. Luckily, Willy Spiller was there, and documented it with his dark and atmospheric series of photos that has now come to be known as “Hell On Wheels“. A splendid book. But also a very rare book. You might be able to find a copy on Amazon. Or his other revered book, “The City“, on Ebay. It’s a crap shoot, and may only be available in German.
From Rap to Punk
Spiller managed to witness the birth of rap music, punk music and rampant graffiti. And crime. In fact, the rate of violent crime in the New York subway was so high by 1980 that the NYPD had over 2300 police officers patrolling the system at all times. Spiller took his chances and documented what he saw.
Although the photos were first released in 1984, “Hell On Wheels” was re-released in 2016. In a chilling forward, Dr. Tobia Bezzola states from experience “These images hardly tell the story of the violent crime and inherent danger”. These are the times we appreciate street photography, and can almost equate it with conflict zone photography. Check out his website below to see more great images.