Subway secrets

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, New York City, 1938-41

As I seem to be back on portraiture this seems to be as good a time as any to think about some different approaches to photographing strangers (something that I’ve been following through several series on Richard Guest’s blog The Future is Papier Mâché recently). Anyone who photographs on the streets of London is liable to find themselves questioned about their motives from time to time, usually by security guards but sometimes by the police, making many wonder quite how much freedom of expression we still have in Britain and the degree to which supposed concerns about privacy or security are being used to mask a more insidious creeping state control. So, what’s it like elsewhere and does making art ever trump other issues?

There is of course a long history of artists working surreptitiously to photograph those around them without being noticed. And of course it’s often the resulting pictures that give is the best idea about everyday life at different times. Walker Evans series Subway Portraits, New York City (1938-41) was made by Evans wearing a hidden camera and recording the people he saw on the subway unnoticed. The subjects of these pictures are caught unawares going about their day to day life. Accordingly the pictures offer a fascinating picture of New York in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Some people are deep in conversation, others lost in their own thoughts or reading the newspaper. We recognise the interactions – and lack of them – from travel today but the surroundings and clothes are of course very much of their time. These are stories of working people, of family life and above all of one of the world’s great cities. That the subjects are unaware of the camera is a crucial part of this series; no-one is posing for the camera. Though perhaps we all have a public face to a greater of lesser extent, public transport is probably one of the places we tend to be the least worried about how we might look to others.

In some of the pictures, one wonders slightly whether the subjects were aware of Evans in some way. It’s probable that no-one really realised what he was doing but nonetheless he could have looked suspicious to an extent.

In the main though, these are ordinary people going about their daily business and looking as tired – and sometimes as irritated or as cross – as most of us do commuting to and from work. There would be fewer hats now and more snacks and, in less formal times, there’d probably be at least one woman somehow managing to put mascara on on a moving train without inducing blindness, but nonetheless these are pictures that feel familiar in lots of ways. What I end really fascinating about these is that though I see the differences – and am interested in them – it’s the similarities that really intrigue me.

None of which quite gets me to the question of whether street photography is any easier in other places, but, you know, I’m easily sidetracked and there’s always tomorrow…

2 thoughts on “Subway secrets

  1. Really enjoying this street photography series. It’s something I shy away from, being shy:) I always admire photographers (including Richard) who can navigate that distance with strangers. Of course, with smartphones etc all over the place, in one sense, people should be used to being incidentally photographed, but I think the bigger format cameras will always draw attention.

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