Monday, April 8, 2013

The Underground.

For the essay I wish to take a closer look at photographers investigating life in the subway system. 
The subway shows the cities density like nowhere els in the city, as a place were the entire demography of a city not only meets but in most cases are forced passed each individuals “personal-space”. The diversity and the unique ethnicity of each individual becomes clear in the subway, as a place were people with different backgrounds come together. The group Improv Everywhere made a Subway yearbook in 2009, showing the variation of the people coming and going on the trains of New York. 

Riding the subway is a chance to clearly understand peoples psychological behavior when cramped closely together. It is an experience of alternately judging people and ignoring them by gazing in an other direction. When looking at Walker Evans photos not much has changed, what seems different is merely their way of dressing. People still tolerate each others presence the same way.
As a contrast then looking at Michael Wolfs “Tokyo Compression” where people are stuffed into the trains in Tokyos cramped subways.

Many are called
Walker Evans, 1966
Between 1936 and 1941 Walker Evans and James Agee documented the depression-era in rural America1, one of the most provocative books in american literature. While working on this book the two of them also worked together on the less known, but equally important project, “Many are called”2.

With the subway portraits Evans turned away from the carefully composed images of poor farmers and architectural details which had up till then characterized his work. Over a period of 3 years he returned to the New York subway photographing people sitting opposite him with a miniature camera hidden in his coat.

The project makes no political argument, but presents a cross section of people from the New York Subway. In order to achieve the spontaneity he limited himself from farming his pictures to only releasing the shutter hidden in his sleeve. The result is a directness to the person in front of him, they appear off center and pushed to the edge of the photos.

Evans captures people in typical subway behavior, daydreaming or a sleep, and some stare back at him – suggesting he must have looked quite intensely at them to begin with. 

Most of the passengers are white and represent a range of social classes. When choosing the subjects he was attracted to the people with a specific facial expression and unusual clothing. 
When working the images Evans would make precise selection and cropping of his images along with the layout in which they were shown. The book remained unpublished until 1966 when an exhibition of his subway portraits were shown at the Museum of Mordern Art in New York.
James Agee wrote the introduction for the book Many Are Called;
The photographs were made in the subway of New York City, during the late thirties and early forties of the twentieth century. The effort, always, has been to keep those who were being photographed as unaware of the camera as possible. To anyone who understands what a photograph can contain, not even that information is necessary, and any further words can only vitiate the record itself. Because so few people do understand what a photography can contain, and because, of these, many might learn, a little more will, reluctantly, be risked. Those who use the New York subways are several millions. The facts about them are so commonplace that they have become almost as meaningless, as impossible to realize, as death in war. These facts- who they are, and the particular thing that happens to them in a subway- need brief reviewing, and careful meditation. They are members of every race and nation of the earth. They are of all ages, of all temperaments, of all classes, of almost every imaginable occupation. Each is incorporate in such an intense and various concentration of human beings as the world has never known before. Each, also, is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake. Each wears garments which of themselves are exquisitely subtle uniforms and badges of their being. Each carries in the postures of his body, in his hands, in his face, in the eyes, the signatures of a time and a place in the world upon a creature for whom the name immortal soul is one mild and vulgar metaphor.”
Tokyo Compression
Michael Wolf

In Tokyo, cramped subway conditions and aggravated commutes are a normal part of the city rush hours. Michael Wolf captured these extreme conditions and the effect it has on the people in the series “Tokyo Compression”. People hardly has room to breath, but because housing in the city is unaffordable commuters must spend houres in and out of Tokyo everyday. 
"This is the result of capitalism gone wild," says Wolf.

Tokyo is known for it´s huge urban population but this series shows how packed city life really is in Japan. Wolf photographed the Tokyo subway for 15 years and published the “Tokyo Compression” over 3 installments. 
Wolf stands on the platform as the doors closes, and thereby unwillingly captures his subjects. Some stare directly into the lens, others closes their eyes. The images shows exhausted, discomfort, and annoyed people. “They are unwilling subjects trapped in the train window… The images create a sense of discomfort as his victims attempt to squirm out of view or simply close their eyes, wishing the photographer to go away.”1

Wolf first started photographing the subway when he reported a nerve gas attack in 1995. He then spent 20 days photographing the morning rush hours portraying people on their way to work.

1 ”Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, 1941.
2 First published in 1966

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