Homework #4: Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

Walker 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. 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?

Walker Evans, Subway Couple

Walker Evans, Subway Couple

New York Times Book review

NPR interview with Met curator Jeff Rosenheim (audio)

Getty Collection of Walker Evans Subway Portraits

To complete this homework assignment, note whether you Post or Comment. For Homework #4, Diamonds and Spades  will submit a Post and Hearts and Clubs will Comment (choose any of your classmates’ posts to comment on).

Please post your responses by Tuesday, November 17th.

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18 Responses to Homework #4: Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

  1. ahadnahida says:

    I ride the train at least 4 times a day. From home to school to work and back to home. Using the train everyday shows you certain views in this city that you cannot find anywhere else. All I see are gloomy faces of people whom are still asleep or very bright, fresh faced tourists bouncing in their seat who are on their way to Times Square. I think Walker Evan’s photographs of the train riders in NYC is a very creative way to show the real New York City. He chose a way that cannot be staged because these are pictures of everyday people. The people who he has photographed all have the same gloomy tiresome faces I see now when I ride the train. Once in a while, there is a bright shiny new face of a person who is smiling on the train. Although many riders are on their phone, the faces are still the same.

    • Daniel says:

      I agree completely with the statement you made. I also take the train around 3 times a day, and all I see is people either sleeping or keeping to themselves while they wait to get to where they are going. Most of these people are already new yorkers. We take the train every day so nothing is really exciting or new for us that we haven’t seen before. Where as the tourist are usually happy and excited, while also a bit confused on how to get somewhere when they are on the subway.The little things in people’s facial expressions can tell you a lot and I can see many similarities to the people from the great depression era to the people that ride the train now a days in 2015.

    • ggodfrey says:

      I agree with you completely. I too take the train back and forth from school and I notice a lot of people have these kind of gloomy looks in there faces or now today I feel like we see more people who’s faces are just glued to their cellphones. No one really is social on the train you just see people who keep to themselves either listening to music, reading a book, or on their phone, myself included. You don’t usually see people looking really happy on the train. You get the occasional ones who just have that natural glow about them but for the most part everybody has that same face like the ones Evan’s photographed in the 1940s. With the way that people today resemble Evan’s photographs I don’t believe that they were staged either.

    • Different settings and situtions can effect how their emotion is projected, and when thought of not being looked at, makes it difficult to hide; for this reason, I agree with your opinion. In subways, I believe everyone is at their most real state. We get a glimpse of someone’s life or lifestyle through what they wear, who they are with, or just by looking at their facial expressions. I do see a similarity as well with the riders in Getty’s photos and todays riders, and it is sad that people’s expressions are still tiresome and sad; even though years have passed and things have changed, life is still a struggle.

    • Ryan Wong says:

      I can definitely relate to your post. I take the train 2 times a day, most of the people mind their own business, whether they are own their phone, taking a nap, or reading a book. Walker Evan’s photographs holds authenticity, these photographs portrays New York City commuters. Once in a while you catch a tourist who are usually always happy and excited from their visit to the big apple. You can find many of these tourist in Times Square. whereas for the New Yorkers, like myself, I typically mind my own business on the trains. Listening to music or taking a nap.

    • Soledad says:

      I must say that I use public transportation to go everywhere and that everyday I see the same faces expressions some are sad, some are worry, some are happy, and some have half sleep faces. Walker Evan’s like you stated took his photographs in a very creative way. He shows the true reality, the real face expressions of people riding the same train on their way to work, school or home. In a way that a photography cant be staged since its captured right at that instant. In a way the riders’ expressions during the Depression Era to today’s riders is similar since at the end we are all trying to survive in this crazy world.

    • Cynthia Cheek says:

      I agree. I feel as if Walker Evans decided to take these photographs with out the people noticing because he was capturing the real emotion of the people riding the train. When I first moved to Brooklyn, many people would ask me where I was from. Some would simply just smile and try and get to know me. I thought it was very odd. Now eight months later, people just ask me for directions if their lost. Although one may see a thousand faces on a train, that gloomy stare is a face of many.

  2. Irina says:

    Since I moved to New York, I met many people who dislike commuting using the subway and avoid it any way they can. Me, on the contrary, I take train a few times per day going to school or work every day. I enjoy observing the passengers. Usually, in the mornings, the early commuters are half-sleepy trying to wake up on their way. Later in the afternoon, during the rash hours everyone is very irritated and annoyed from the packed trains. In the evenings, after a tiring day people are going back home, some of them are listening to the music or reading, trying to kill the time of travel, some are just lost in their thoughts or even taking naps.
    Sometimes, I meet very interesting characters in the train and have a desire to capture them or the facial expressions of the people emerged in their thoughts, but I rarely do that, as I do not want to make them feel uncomfortable. I guess I am not that creative and passionate as Walker Evans was, who hid his camera in his coat in order to take pictures of the people just the way they were without posing for the camera.
    Looking at the images of the subway riders during the Depression Era, I noticed some kind of sadness and worry in their looks. However, to be honest, even in our times, there are so many events and tragedies happening in the world, so many people are facing social or economic hardship, that very often I notice the same worried and tense expressions.

    • Nicole says:

      I totally get what you’re saying about traveling via the subway. Many people hate taking the subway but I love it. Although sometimes when I’m in a bad mood taking the subway makes me very agitated. But taking the subway has become so much a part of my daily routine it feels weird when I don’t take the subway. I like to look at someone and try to figure out what they’re thinking. If they look sad i try to think what has happened to them, if they look happy I wonder what has made them so happy. I also wonder if people ever look at my facial expressions and try to figure out what I’m thinking.
      I feel like if you compare the pictures Evans took to people on the subway now they would be very similar because each person has their own little “great depression” going on in their head.

    • Cynthia Cheek says:

      I agree aswell. I myself don’t mind taking the train. I always catch up with some news and get a chance to think my day through. Its kind of therapeutic to not always have cell phone service. Although times are not as tough as they were back then, there are still issues that are surrounding us that effect the lives of many. I think the people of New York all have a mutual understanding for one another. Especially when underground.

  3. In the pictures that Evans has taken during The Great Depression, everyone in those pictures have gloomy faces. Perhaps many of those people were sad living in a bad environment where many did not have jobs. Evans took these pictures to describe how people reactions were back in the Great Depression. Nowadays people on the subway have tired looks from work and you see lots of kids smiling and laughing with their friends while people like me don’t like looking at other people instead we look at our phones. Evans photographs were never staged because people at that time were suffering. There was no way he told them to pose in front of a camera. The photographs that he took were to show facial reactions of people during the Great Depression.

    • Bibi Ali says:

      I agree. I feel that since cameras were becoming a thing, no one really cared because it was already getting embedded into the culture. It was an everyday thing, it was seen almost everywhere. Although it was a kind of humorous approach because people still saw him, he still captured the everyday life of a New Yorker’s daily travel. It showed people and their behavior. It showed how people would interact with one another, what they would to pass the time while waiting for their stop to arrive. I do still see similarities between those pictures and todays riders. To be honest nothing has really changed. Everyone comes from a different walk of life and during that tie it was very hard for many, the way they present their-self in public, either being seen or unseen, it was something the riders couldn’t change; they couldn’t change the way they looked when the picture was taken, nothing was staged. Every inch of it was real. Whether life was easy or hard or it was just a new experience, you could tell. Some women are talking and having a nice conversation while others just blatantly stare into space. Some would do the crossword puzzle. But everyone had his or her own habits. Today’s riders you can tell the same. Everyone likes to be on their phone or some type of electronic device, if not that, then some people like to read the news paper or whatever else they find fit. And to be honest I sometimes have a very permissive face when I’m in the train myself.

    • Cynthia Cheek says:

      I do agree, however I feel as if the faces of the people in those photographs would be the same faces you see today. For example, in one of the photographs, you see a man standing in the middle of the train cart playing an instrument and what appears to be him singing. A majority of the people surrounding him are just reading their news papers. They’re not even paying him any mind. The same thing happens now-a-days. As soon as someone comes into a train cart and starts singing/dancing/ or playing an instrument, no one usually even makes eye contact. Partly because they would feel guilty not throwing them some cash or change, but also because its kind of an annoyance. Many find it to be an annoyance because, as their facial expressions say it themselves, they don’t want to be on that train. They want to be home or somewhere else. Not on their public commute.

  4. “Many are Called” shows a lot of pictures by Walker Evans that to an extend, show similarities to the subway riders of today, just like the photos of Evans, the subway riders of today also have a serious expression when riding the train, I feel like Evans must have missed some face expressions (or I did not see them when watching some of the photographs) like adults smiling at babies, arguments, or the laughs that happen between kids when they take the train to head home. If I were to photograph subway riders and all I got was people having little to no face expression I would feel like I did no justice to what the passengers are like. The idea of photographing someone when they have no idea about it seems like invasion of privacy, but now a days it seems almost imposible to not have your picture taken.

  5. Jamile Brito says:

    During the Great Depression Evan’s photographs shows how gloomy some people’s face expressions are. He took the time to do this by hiding his camera just so he could capture every face expression as much as possible. From what i’ve seen it is somewhat like what we see on the train nowadays, where people is either in their own zone, sad, happy or laughing. Nothing really has changed because us New Yorker’s when we ride the train that’s all we see. Even people that have good conversations with others, reading the newspaper, smiling or looking sad . At that time it could have been that because they were going through a Great Depression, many were probably unemployed or even had financial issues which may have caused them to seem so gloomy while riding the subway train. I personally dislike riding the train because i feel like people tend to be very obnoxious sometimes. Also, because people are just in their own world we either use our phones, read or just stare at something just to avoid that awkwardness.

  6. When looking at Evan’s photographs I can see the people of today. Nothing much has changed in terms of how people ride the subway. Some take the time to sleep while others read or talk with friends. It seemed as though some people were looking right at him and knew what he was doing. Or at least they knew something was off about him. I think it was a good idea that he waited so long to release the pictures because similar to the picture of the women with the three children who didn’t want to be known as the dirty women in the photo. Some people probably didn’t want to have their picture taken at all. So to have your picture taken without even knowing it and it being published in a book I think it was fair that he waited a while so that these people didn’t have to see the book and say that was me a couple of months ago while on my way to work.

  7. Kevin Michalkiewicz says:

    When I take the train in New York City I am exposed to a lot of different things and people. A train ride in New York City is an experience itself. I see a people with no expression on their face listening to music or sleeping. People who want to go home after a long day of work and people who are half asleep. And don’t forget about the tourists with their face stuffed in a map. Walker Evans secretive way of taking photographs on the train successfully shows peoples dull expressions during the depression. His photos show emotionless expressions on peoples faces. I believe that not much has changed in peoples expressions when on the train. For the most part there are people who are emotionless and there are also those people who are up beat and happy. 🙂

  8. Jose N says:

    I agree with walkers Evan because every day I use the train to go different place in New York. Every time I’m in the train I see different people and such by seeing I can Know what type of people is it, I can notice if they are New Yorkers or tourists. Because I’m train you see so many things that we see what is happing in New York. For example if New York is going through hard economic times we notice in the subway because people would not be very happy but, tourists.

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