Walker Evans was born in 1903 and was recruited to work in the Farm Security Administration during the Depression years producing some of his best-know work. He later became a professor of photography at Yale University. Between 1938 and 1941 Evans made a series of portraits of passengers which he shot on various subways. The series was called “Many are Called”.
Evans used a concealed camera and ran a remote shutter release down the sleeve of his coat into his hand. He was literally shooting blind. Often fellow photographer, Helen Levitt would accompany him on the subways.
Dyer (2007 p. 19) states:
The idea, … was to affirm that certain people ‘had come along and, without knowing it, placed themselves in front of a fixed and impersonal apparatus for a given time, and that all these individuals, … were photographed without the slightest human intervention at the moment the shutter clicked’.
All the subjects were oblivious to the fact that they were being photographed and Evans noticed that, alone in a crowded rail carriage, people tended to drop their guard. I have observed similar expressions when taking public transit. It is as if people think they have an invisible barrier around themselves that no one can penetrate. The blank stare at the person sitting opposite where one does not really see the person: one is simply so lost in thought that one doesn’t realise one is staring.
Evans also captured tiny dramas – little interactions between passengers. Two people sharing a joke or reading a newspaper together. Dyer (2007 p 20) states that “it is precisely this detached quality of their conception and composition that gives Evans’s subway pictures their intense human appeal.”
Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff Rosenheim reflects on Evan’s subway portraits here.
Evans’ subway portraits give credence to Barthes’ notion in Death of the Author where he dispels the idea that the author’s identity and views dictate the meaning of the text.
… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.
Barthes (1977 p. 145)
Evans was shooting blind – he had no way of knowing what he was capturing until he developed his film. The only control Evans’ had over his image was when to press his shutter release and then hope for the best. The absence of any directional prompts is something that is central to traditional documentary photography.
Evans stated that the roles of “seer” and “the seen” were reversed in his portraits. The photographer or viewer (us) is being observed by the subway passengers and and has to give up control. As Jonathan Schroeder in Daniel Chandler’s Notes on the Gaze states: ‘to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’.
Now who would be the gazer in this photograph? Clearly the couple is looking directly at the photograph, totally unaware they are being photographed. Their gaze is quite direct and compelling. When I look at the photograph I have the distinctive feeling that they are looking at me.
Barthes, Roland (1977). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press
Chandler, Daniel Notes on The Gaze [online] Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/gaze/gaze02.html
Dyer, Geoff (2007) The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books
Rosenheim, Jeff. (2013) Stare. [Subway Passengers, New York City], 1938–41 Walker Evans (American) [online]. 82nd & Fifth Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available at: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/stare [Accessed 13 July, 2016]
Evans, Walker (1938-1941) Subway Portrait [online] Minneapolis Institute of Art. Available at: http://collections.artsmia.org/art/2179 [Accessed 14 July, 2016]
Shepard, Annie (2012) Photography: Walker Evans’ NYC Subway Portraits [online]. Untapped Cities. Available at: http://untappedcities.com/2012/11/20/photography-walker-evans-subway-portraits/ [Accessed 14 July, 2016]
Angier, R. (2015) Train Your Gaze (2nd edition). London: Bloomsbury