Saturday, April 13, 2013

The city, underground.

Bruce Davidson, 1986

Subway was first published in 1986, six years after Bruce Davidson began photographing in the New York underground train system. The project led to a praised exhibition at the International Center for photography in 1982, commenting on Davidson´s use of color and style.
The photos of the New York subway shows an overheated, overcrowded, and potentially violent setting for muggings, drug-related emergencies, and nudity. When looking through the series it seems clear that what truly interested Davidson was not the violent conditions, but rather the people who converged on the subway. 

“I wanted to transform the subway from its dark, degrading, and impersonal reality into images that open up our experience again to the color, sensuality, and vitality of the individual souls that ride it each day.”
Davidson work out from a context, often of contemporary relevance, such as the New York subway was in the 1980´s. The subway was know for not running, being unsafe, and full of graffiti, but he describes it as sexy, sensual and sometimes extremely grim. 

The subway is an attractive setting to document because of its uniqueness as a public room, a showroom for the city’s demographic diversity and the compressed individual. The subway is an unpredictable, anonymous and enclosed environment containing a diverse range of individuals who, despite the public setting, often remain in their own worlds.

Initially Davidson was shooting with a black-and-white Leica film-camera, as he did in the former projects Brooklyn Gang and East 100th Street, but he then started to explore in color. 

When using color the tags starts to interact with the peoples cloth, skin tones and creates a dialogs across the image. And with the use of a strobe flash he further intensifies the colors contrasting them to a deep black, which amplifies the violence of the subway. He transforms the subway into an aesthetic experience, revealing things that is commonly overlooked. 
“In transforming the firm, abusive, violent and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of color, I see the subject as a metaphor for the world in which we live today.”

For most subway photographers, such as Walker Evans, remaining unnoticed by their subjects is a crucial part of the process, in order to capture the subject free of projections. Walker Evans secretly took pictures of people because he wanted to portrait people unaware of a cameras presence. Davidson have a more confrontational method that shows drama, personality, strangeness and beauty. His method is different because he deliberately makes his presence know by carrying his camera around his neck. When a scene or a subject caught his attention he would approach, explain his project and ask for their permission to shoot. He would then ask them to look into the camera or continue the scene.

I was looking at the map when the doors opened and in came a fierce youth with a deeply gouged scar running across his face.
He sat down across the aisle from me, gave me a hard look, and said in a low, penetrating voice, “Take me picture, and I´m going to break your camera.” I quickly said, “I don´t take pictures without people´s permission, and I always send them prints.” I reached into my jacket pocket for my portfolio, walked over to him, and slowly leafed through the sample photographs while sitting on the edge of my seat. After looking, he paused for a moment, then turned to me and said, “Okay, take my picture.” I went back to my seat and began to photograph, taking a few frames. Then I wrote down his address. He left, disappearing along the platform as the train gained speed. A couple of weeks later I sent him some prints of our encounter together, but the post office returned them with a red stamp on the envelope that said: RETURNED TO SENDER – MOVED – LEFT NO ADDRESS.

Where Evans work was about capturing private moments unfolding in public, Davidson´s subjects are aware and often posing for the camera. An interesting question is if we learn more about the person from unconscious or conscious behavior?