Tag Archives: subway

Martin Parr

Gerry Badger1 describes Martin Parr as “not quite an out-and-out modernist, not quite a postmodernist.” Parr is someone who is a successful photojournalist, who also works conceptually and exhibits in galleries and museums. He is comfortable working in all facets of life, in all cultures, but is probably best known for his tongue-in-cheek photography about modern culture. When Parr switched from doing black and white photography to making colour photos in the 1980s his vision changed  from “gritty romanticism to hyaline realism2.”

Martin may deploy humor, in a typically English, somewhat mordant fashion, but at root he is commenting upon modern mores, from a sharp, edgy, ironic, critical, yet consistent political point of view.

Badger, Gerry3 (2010 :9)

Parr is a critical observer of consumer culture which he uses to playfully and ironically depict his subjects.

In his series Japanese Commuters which the course material points us to, we can see that Parr has photographed all his subjects unaware. The fact is they are all asleep. The set of images is a humorous typology of Japanese commuters on a train, all but one, almost doubled over in their sleep, as if deep in prayer. They are definitely not flattering portraits: the subjects’ vulnerabilities on show for all to see. We notice the thinning hair on some, noses that appear distorted or even almost non-existent. Only a few of the subjects have visible mouths.

How often have I not sat on the bus watching my fellow Asian travellers take a seat and within a minute of the bus moving off from the stop find them nodding off into oblivion. Or be in the unlucky position (or seat) of having such a person sitting next to me and have him/her nodding off on my shoulder! Take it from me – it is not a pleasant experience! So in my mind’s eye I am watching Parr’s subjects for clues as to which way they are going to lean when the train changes direction around a curve or comes to a halt at the station.

What a difference in style from Walker Evans’ subway portraits to Martin Parr’s Japanese commuters! As Geoff Dyer4 (2007: 7) states in The Ongoing Moment “To see if style could be identified in and by … content. The only way to do this was to see how different people photographed the same thing.” Evans shows us engaged passengers or passengers deep in thought in their own private world in the context of the carriage. Parr shows us obscure angles of people’s heads, rendering them almost featureless and totally anonymous, completing overflowing the frame. The lone figure in Parr’s set who is not doubled over in sleep is sitting upright, but we cannot see his face. Parr has cut off his head at mid neck level and all we see is the gold knot of his silk tie, the pinstripes of his dark suit and white shirt. He becomes even more anonymous than his sleeping counterparts. We can make out no context whatsoever in Parr’s images and have to rely on his captions to anchor the context of his images.

At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image … the caption helps me choose the correct level of perception …

Barthes5 (1977, p. 39)

Reference List
  1. Badger, Gerry (2010). The Pleasures of Good Photographs, Essays by Gerry Badger, published by Aperture in June 2010 [online]. Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/ParrByBadger.pdf [Accessed 19 July, 2016]
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dyer, Geoff (2007). The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books Edition
  5. Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press
  6. Parr, Martin (1998) Tokyo Commuters [online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYD12J76K [Accessed 20 July 2016]

Walker Evans

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.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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’.

© Walker Evans Archive
© Walker Evans Archive

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.

Reference List

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