Discussion Topic: Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

Evans’ photographed people on the New York City subways between 1938-1941.  He only published these photographs 25 years later in his book, Many Are Called, which was re-issued in 2004.  Read a review about the new edition in the New York Times or listen to a radio interview of the book’s re-release and a related exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Then look at some of Evans photographs on the Getty website or on Visualingual’s blog.  What do you think of Evans’ clandestine approach to photography?  Do you see similarities between the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era to today’s riders?

New York Times Book review

NPR interview with Met curator Jeff Rosenheim (audio)

Getty Collection of Walker Evans Subway Portraits

Visualingual’s Blog on Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

Please post your responses and comments by Saturday, April 14.


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18 Responses to Discussion Topic: Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

  1. To get these images of ordinary people during a train ride Evans used a hidden camera. I think the main purpose was to obtain their natural expressions, something he would have not been able to get if they knew they were being photographed. Often times, people fake their expressions when in front of a camera something Evans wanted to avoid to show the real mood of people while riding the train. In the pictures, the riders look sad, serious and at some point lonely. What I found similar between the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era and today’s riders is people reading, people chatting and people sleeping. However, they all seem very tranquil. Today people sometimes get to be a little noisy and sometimes disrespectful to others. Nowadays, people dress in different styles, but most of the time they dress very casual. During the Depression Era, people were used to wear hats on a daily basis and their use of furs made them look like they had a more formal way to dress, which is reflected in the pictures. Another similarity I found is people soliciting; in one of the pictures I saw someone playing the accordion. Besides, the ads in the subway were used at the times too.

    • sarah52 says:

      I totally agree with you Florencia Garcia. To get the true natural expressions of regular people in New York there is no other way than doing it in the subway with the hidden camera and Evan knew that very well. Throughout these years people did change and so was their attitude and their fashion sense. Nowadays, we got louder and disrespectful. I think from Evans photographs people should reconnect with those moments so that some of us could learn something out of it. And the similarities such as ads and their natural nature made us think they were as regular people as we are.

  2. Romaine says:

    I think Evan’s clandestine approach was a nice touch to these photos, a secretive approach helped Evan captured natural, non-staged responds and reactions. I really enjoy the candid feel of the photography; it gives the picture a realistic and natural look to it. Just by viewing the pictures. I feel like I have a better sense of how it was during this time period from just looking at the subjects facial expressions, I can somewhat get a sense of the individuals personality to some degree by viewing of these candid photos. I do see similarities between riders from the depression era and today riders, which could primary, involve riders attempting to keep them self busy so they don’t have to make awkward eye contact with strangers. While the style of changed, there are still similarities between riders of the depression and today.

  3. soma206 says:

    Evans clandestine approach to photography was a very smart idea in my opinion. Evans was trying to get a true expression from people, rather than a staged expression. I feel that people are truly them selves when they are by themselves. This is when people do most of there thinking, because they do have this time on there hands. I do feel that his photos then of riders are the same expression of todays riders. As seen in his photos, riders are chatting reading or just staring. I feel that the only thing changing is technology, peoples expression wont.

  4. ramlakhanp says:

    Evans captured people in their natural state which is hard to do not knowing a camera is in front of them…it’s only natural to pose when direct too… His approach to photography is one many people would like to see more often… the natural state, a lot of his images of people are more relaxed state of mind almost seem lost in the world, lonely and serious…images that cannot be captured by a simple pose…his technique is a unique one… There are a lot of similarities such as most riders in that era are more like riders in modern times and somewhat similar…people don’t want to be bothered and stay to them selves inus how they dress compare to back then…other then that their actions remain the same…

  5. kathrynli says:

    In my opinion, it is very wise to capture expressions on a train because there is a diverse range of people that use the train as a form of transportation. Different people have different personalities and a different sense of style. When you’re riding on the train, you cannot help but notice the other strap hangers that are commuting with you.

    After viewing the photographs, I noticed that everyone in the pictures are looking at something else. Almost nobody directs their vision to the camera. Evans must have done a great job at hiding the camera. Also, none of the passengers had a smile on their face. The Depression probably played a role in that. Now a days, you would see people laughing and talking to their friends. However, it was obvious that the train ride must have been quiet with an exception of the occasional performers that play instruments throughout the train ride.

  6. sarah52 says:

    Evan did clandestine photography because he wanted to capture the true nature of his subject. To capture natural form of people in New York there is no other way to do it inside a subway with a hidden camera. Also he knew to get the job done winter is the best time to hide his camera underneath his coat. I think he did an amazing job of discretely taking those photos.
    Yes, I do see a lot of similarities between the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era to today’s riders. By looking at his photos where people are sleeping, reading newspaper, talking to each other, or their blank bored staring; surprised me that nothing has changed.

  7. kkathia123 says:

    I think that Evans’ clandestine approach to photography was very unusual as what we have observed and learned in class from early photographers ( most of the early portraits were staged). Evans took photographs of people in the subway with his hidden camera. With this technique he was able to capture natural and unique facial expressions and postures of the passengers. All the subjects were serious, looking away and focusing on their own thoughts.

    Yes, I do see similarities between the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era to today’s riders. In my opinion, I think that the riders’ expressions from the past and today’s are the same. We are all serious and doing our own things when we are in the subway. It is very seldom to see a person laughing or smiling alone in the train as a natural expression.
    The only thing that have changed is that nowadays, people are more hyperactive in the train because of the amount of technological devices that have been created in the past years with the purpose of entertain us on our way home, work and so on.

  8. Carmen K. Ma says:

    Evans captured natural expression and posture of people who are taking the subway. He is able to capture these natural looking portrait by his technique. Its a clever way because we tend to have different expression or reaction to the camera and photographer when we know they are taking a picture. With his technique we are able to see the natural facial and posture of the subjects.
    I do see similarities between the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era to today’s riders. From the past to now, we still look emotionless, reading newspaper,or having interaction with others while on the train etc.

  9. JoshuaStL says:

    Walker Evans’ covert approach to photography allowed him to capture his subjects anonymously and candidly. The “camera culture” we have today was very much alive and well in the 1930s. If Walker were to pull out a camera in the middle of a subway car the reactions he would have gotten then (and today) could be mixed at best and get downright violent at worst. By hiding the camera, Evans was afforded the freedom to shoot his subjects true to the moment. Naturally.
    After appraising the portraits of 1930s subway patrons, you’ll quickly notice not much has changed in over 80 years. Rush hours still rush hour, there’s advertising everywhere, and the same facial expressions you saw then you’d see now. Including, the “sleeping” patron and the “I’m-so-tired-and-bored-I’m-just-going-to-stare-off-into-space” expression. I don’t think the facial expressions of yesterday had anything to do with the depression or that the expressions of today have anything to do with the recession. Subway patrons of today and patrons of yesterday had pretty much the same thing on their minds; “And they want to raise the fair, for what?”

    • JoshuaStL says:

      Just to clarify the last statement. Many people were affected by the depression, it was a difficult time in American history. However, life goes on, and after awhile we adjust. For example, months after 911 there was a surge of patriotism among straphangers. Everywhere you looked there was red, white and blue. Even still, aside from the more than usual amount of gloom faces, expressions didn’t change much. You could still find the, “I’m-so-tired-and-bored-I’m-just-going-to-stare-off-into-space” expression.

  10. ahna0812 says:

    Evans took picture of people that in the subway. He took natural emotion of people that in the subway. Evans want to capture people natural emotion, however, people don’t like other stranger to take their picture. so Evans did a great job of his photography, because he hide his camera inside his coat. In Evans photo, people are seem lonely and serious. his skill is a unique from other. From the past people are emotionless, but in 21 century, people are very attract by technology. In 21 century, people are always playing their cellphone and their technology devices. from the pass, people are just sitting quiet in the subway and read their article.

  11. lalizazhu says:

    Evans used a noteworthy way to capture people’s expression and posture in the train. As many of my classmates have already mentioned above, it was a smart way to capture the natural expression of these people. Looking throughout some of Evans’ pictures, it makes me wonder what were these people thinking? Were these people day dreaming? For those pictures of people reading a newspaper or a book, were they really reading them? Or they were holding it and just thinking about something else. I just could not stop thinking about that because I usually do it when I am sitting in a train. I usually look around and wonder what is going through all those people head at that moment? I think Evans was probably asking himself the same question when he was looking at these people’s faces. He probably found something interesting about each person that he could not resist to take a picture of them.

  12. Aleckzzz says:

    I think that Walter Evans did unique and very important experiment. He created the face of 1930-40s generation. He chose a very specific place — subway, were after a couple of minutes of riding people became relaxed and start to behave naturally. Using a hidden camera he could not only get very close to the people and get the effect of spontaneity, but also achieve a straight forward angle and odd cropping, because of no aiming.
    Evans’ subway series can be definitely considered as, so called, iconic pictures. He took the pictures and kept them for 25 years unpublished for a reason. I think, first of all, Evans tried to make those photos as much iconic as possible. Nobody would be interested in seeing portraits that were done yesterday or a week ago or even a year ago. People can easily recognize them and connect to their present — they are too familiar with the present, because they live in it. Even after 25 years Evans’ subway series did not get much of a success. Nowadays we look at those portraits differently. We see them as ordinary people, who became a part of the history.
    Another possible reason of keeping this subway series from publication was that Evans wanted the people on the photos remain unknown. So he tried to create not the series of portraits of people, but the united portrait of the whole generation.

  13. asensog3 says:

    With Evans’ clandestine approach to photography on the NYC Subway during the Depression Era, I believe he was able to capture very “nonchalant” moments of ordinary people. This was a very unique technique that Evans used because it is able to show how subway riders LOOKED and FELT on the subways during the Depression Era. You can see that people are very relaxed and feel almost at home, whilst others may look very depressed and NOT so relaxed.

    In comparison to our time, I will say that there are striking difference between now and then as the expression on the subway riders faces in Evans photographs are almost exactly the same as I see everyday as I ride on the NYC Subways. I can say that his approach to photography is very different, such that even for me when I pull out my camera to take a photograph of someone with them being aware, their mode change all of a sudden to a very nice and happy one just to ready themselves for the moment.

  14. superartist says:

    The ordinary became the most popular news. It seems that the everyday images of daily living always have an impacting message and according to walker Evan pictures of ordinary people this what really interested him and caught his eye. I believe that walker Evan just wanted to capture everyday moments that with very ordinary picture. This also became a sort of study for walker Evan because he really just wanted to play around and study the light around the figures and shadow of the whole overall pictures of his work. I also see that his photos highlight the gestures of people and that he really captures their movements or poses.

    This is my post!

  15. mzambrana says:

    As I looked through each picture of the Subway riders you notice that nothing has really change. Our posteures as we ride the subway train shows our hurry to get to our destinations. What I noticed that really change where the structures of the train it self. In on of the photographs I noticed if I am not mistaken that one of the trains had a celing fan. I was actually astonished by this because with the amount of people who ride the train wouldn’t it be hazardous. Riders expression are very similar to the riders today. Even to mines.

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