Many photographers have stalked humanity in the New York City subway system, which opened 100 years ago last month, but none would be more influential than Walker Evans, one of America's preeminent documentary photographers, who began his sly subterranean project in February 1938.
He was 34 and on the verge of fame, his works scheduled for a solo exhibition later that year at the Museum of Modern Art. Newly returned to Manhattan after journeying in the South, he had photographed with stark lyricism streets, passersby, buildings and even billboards for a U.S. government information agency and then, with the writer James Agee, had painstakingly documented the lives of poor tenant farmers for a magazine assignment that would become the seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941.
Evans found his vocation rather late in life. Born in St. Louis in 1903, he attended a string of schools in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts and dropped out of Williams College. After a year in Paris, he fell in with an edgy literary and art crowd in New York City (John Cheever and Lincoln Kirstein were among his friends) that disdained American commercialism. He referred to his father, an advertising executive, as a "professional hack writer." Walker Evans, frustrated by his efforts to become a serious writer, had become a "passionate photographer," he said, by 1930.
He seized on the subway reportedly because of the variety of people who, for a nickel, put up with the underworld gloom and the racket of the steel-wheeled cars. He was especially drawn to the riders' expressions, the private preoccupied or daydreamy blankness that people often wear when left alone in public. "The guard is down and the mask is off," Evans wrote at the time, adding, "people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway." And the best way to catch them in the act of being themselves, he decided, was to take pictures without their knowledge.
With his camera hung around his neck so the lens peeked out of his coat, he snaked the cable release down his sleeve into his hand. New York City subway seats, then and now, line the car walls and face one another, and Evans, says the photographer Helen Leavitt, would sit down opposite someone who interested him. Leavitt, who is 91 and lives in New York City, accompanied Evans on some of his subway forays, and she recalls how he pointed his chest at a subject and invisibly tripped the shutter with the cable release.
The elaborate rig may seem quaint in this day of tiny digital cameras, but it was then state of the art, and Evans wielded the apparatus with clinical detachment, compiling more than 600 photographs of subway riders over three years. Some were published in magazines in 1956 and 1962, and MoMA exhibited many of them in 1966. That year, Evans published a book of 89 subway photographs, Many Are Called. It has just been reissued, coinciding with the subway's centennial.
Looking at the pictures now, one notices first the bygone fashions, the pencil-thin mustaches and fur stoles. And the hats! Almost everybody wears a hat: a fedora, a homburg, a pillbox. Also, the pictures that Evans picked for the book, curiously, seem to run to type, with an emphasis on tired-looking, overfed, middle-aged white people. The selection undermines Agee's endorsement of the project, written in 1940, that the subway presented "such an intense and various concentration of human beings as the world has never known before."
Still, the pictures—a man with a boy yawns, a woman in a fur hat gazes into space, an old nun pouts—outlast the moment and convey a sense of his subjects' lived-in selves. Alex Harris, a photographer at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, admires Evans' studied unobtrusiveness. "Evans' art was to take the 'art' out of photography," he says, "to give the viewer of his pictures a sense they were seeing the unadorned thing itself without the photographer's manipulative presence."
Others would take candid subway pictures after Evans, who went on to work for Fortune magazine and who died in 1975 at age 71. In fact, the Museum of the City of New York now has an exhibition of such photographs since the 1970s by Bruce Davidson, Camilo José Vergara and Sam Hollenshead. The show marks the subway's anniversary, but it's also timely because the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority this past spring drafted a regulation prohibiting unauthorized photography in the subways, to prevent terrorist acts by limiting recorded surveillance of the facilities. The agency's governing board will probably vote on the proposal by the end of the year, a spokesman says.
Meanwhile, the prospect has sparked outrage—from photographers, civil libertarians and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suggested the regulation was too sweeping if it means that a tourist couldn't take a snapshot in a subway station without a permit. "C'mon," he said, "get real."
In a 1962 essay in Harper's Bazaar that accompanied several of his subway photographs, Evans voiced misgivings about the methods he'd used to make the pictures, calling himself a "penitent spy." Some scholars question whether he really regretted his hidden camera work. But it's chilling that in the near future even his sort of spying—on the human condition—might be outlawed.