Riding the subway is an experience of alternately judging people and ignoring them by playing phone games. Looking at Walker Evans’ subway portraits, not much has changed. It is somehow reassuring to know that even in the 1930s, New Yorkers were still annoyed by the general presence of pretty much everyone else. What is different, however, is the general proliferation of fur. And hats. Lots of hats.

After documenting depression-era rural America in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans turned his attention to city life and New York was the obvious choice.   Over a period of three years, between 1938- 1941, Evans took photographs of fellow subway riders with a camera hidden in his coat. Despite the surreptitious hiding place, many of the subjects seem to stare directly into the lens as if they are totally aware that they are becoming subject matter (which says something about the intensity of a subway stare).

For a more refined interpretation of Walker Evans photographs, I turn to James Agee, who wrote the introduction to Evans’ book on the images, Many Are Called. He writes,

Those who use the New York subways are several millions…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.

I’ve seen many people on the subway to whom I might apply the term “vulgar metaphor”, and I laude Agee for finally giving me a vocabulary to do so. But like it or not, we somehow put up with each other- even if it is only in the name of going from Point A to Point B.

For more photos and commentary, visit Neon Mamacita.

Also check out these rarely seen photographs of the NYC subway in the 1960s by Magnum photographer Danny Lyon.

 fashion, manhattan, subway, vintage

3 Responses
  1. One of the most amazing things to me about these great photos is the fact that Walker Evans was using
    a camera that had a KNOB advance. Think about this….the camera is concealed,
    but how does one turn the advance knob 3-4 times without looking odd on the train?
    Contax cameras of the time had no automatic drives…Leicas did, but they had a
    long-throw advance lever on that would have been attached to the bottom of the
    camera. These were mechanical devices and were LOUD, even on a subway train.
    Also, keep in mind that when Mr. Evans had to re-load his camera, the entire back
    had to come off and a take-up spool had to come out to which the film had to be attached.
    The film of the day was slow…no faster than ISO 100 by today’s ratings. He was more than
    likely working at wide open apertures (f/1.5 or f/2.0) at around 1/8-1/15 of a second (which
    is possible with a rangefinder camera, as there is no mirror flipping out of the way when
    the exposure is made).
    It would be fun to re-create this series using the cameras of the time.
    All of these limitations of the time make these photos all the more remarkable.

    • michelle young Reply

      So true! We love the idea of recreating the photographs. I have a project on the side (long term one) recreating several thousand photos from my husband’s family photographs (1890s to 1920s), all around Europe. Incredible collection of the earliest photographs in remarkable locations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *