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
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.
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 The book remained unpublished until 1966 when an exhibition of his subway portraits were shown at the Museum of Mordern Art in New York.
“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.” 3
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.
2 First published in 1966