Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Short History of Subway Pictures

I’m always trying to figure out exactly how to best use flickr. I know there are untold photographic riches to be mined – but how exactly to extract them?

I was recently sent a link to a series of photographs of sleeping Japanese commuters which inspired me to look up what other pictures there were on the subject, and - BAM! – a little treasure trove that’s funny, and interesting, and illustrates the vast cultural differences in the world.

These pictures got me thinking about subway pictures in general and I figured I would post an incredibly brief history of the genre, starting with Walker Evans’ famous series taken in the late 1930s. In this groundbreaking work, shot surreptitiously with a 35mm lens poking through his buttonhole, Evans aimed to break free of the artifice of conventional studio portraiture and went on to create one of the most important and influential series in American photography. It took twenty years for the pictures to be published, but the series became a seminal point in the medium. "It was" he said, "my idea of what a portrait ought to be: anonymous and documentary and a straight-
forward picture of mankind."

This definition and a reliance on the hidden camera became both a mantra and a direct template for Harry Callahan’s “Women Lost in Thought” and P.L. DiCorcia’s “Heads” – two of my favorite bodies of work which while they happen to be taken on the street are really "subway" pictures in the Evans tradition.

In between Callahan and DiCorcia, there was a true return to the subway, Bruce Davidson’s 1980 “Subway” with its adventurous blend of Color photography (with a capital C) and photojournalism. Four bodies of work – four totally distinct visions. (And to prove that everyone is influenced by someone, Evans was specifically inspired by Honoré Daumier's “Third-Class Carriage” of 1863 - a painting he saw at the Met.) Now build on that!

Two of Walker Evans' photographs.

Three Harry Callahans.

Two P.L. DiCorcias.

Four Bruce Davidsons.

Honore Daumier.

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