For many photographers the NYC Subway system is irresistible. Riders learn to yield personal space and, unless riding with a friend, adopt a state of studied isolation on their daily commute. That look of being present but entirely self-absorbed in the crowd, has attracted photographers over the decades. Except for the elevated sections, the subway is an enclosed space, artificially lit from above. Flash and tripods were (and still are) prohibited, so it is was a challenging environment for film photographers, requiring fast film and slow shutter speeds. Many have taken up the challenge over the years. Walker Evans is perhaps the best known. From 1938 to 1941 Evans photographed his fellow riders with a camera concealed in his bulky overcoat. Many of those in these portraits look directly at the photographer with unseeing eyes. [A sample of these images may be found online]. Several decades later, Bruce Davidson's book Subway (St. Ann's Press, 2003 revised edition) offered a vibrant color portrait of the riders in a system covered in 1980's graffiti.
With the advent of digital photography and the ubiquity of cellphones and social media, we are awash in subway selfies, man-spreaders, and videos of “entertainers” with an audience captive (and often captivated) between stations. However, the challenge of new approaches to subway images is still being met. Recent examples include Reiner Gerritsen's The Last Book series and Adam Magyar's Stainless series (both still and video) recently on view at the Julie Saul Gallery.
But let's leave the photobook and the gallery behind us and head into the subway where we can find eight previously unpublished Danny Lyon subway images on display on the concourse between the Atlantic Ave-Barclay Center subway station and the LIRR terminal. When Lyon returned to New York City in late 1966 for a visit, he took his mother's advice: “If you're bored, just talk to someone on the subway.” Grabbing a Rolleiflex loaded with color transparency film, he captured a number of images around New Year's Eve. These images are a change from his monochromatic earlier work on the Civil Rights Movement and the Bikeriders project he was involved with at the time. The Rollei, a twin-lens reflex, is an interesting choice for a candid camera. Unlike eye-level 35 mm cameras, you looked down into top of the camera, held at chest or waist level, to focus and frame the image. Its leaf shutter was much quieter than the focal plane shutters in its 35 mm cousins. A photographer could easily appear just to be fiddling with knobs on the camera, not looking directly at or even facing the subject, while taking a photo (a technique I admit to have used at times with a TLR on the subway during the same period). The viewpoint in Lyon's images is at that mid-body level, just like the earlier Evans subway photos. Some of the individuals depicted appear to be looking at Lyon, but whether they are actually “seeing” him is open to debate. In one image a sailor glances back but appears to be looking toward Lyon's right. In another, two young women sit side by side — one looking toward the viewer, the other glancing sideways at her seatmate. There is more visual engagement in other photos: A sharply dressed young man looks directly at the viewer with lips parted as if to speak, a toy horn in his hand signaling NYE. A photograph on an elevated platform shows a young boy looking obliviously off to the side — while another stares directly at Lyon through the dirty window of the station door. All four of these photos are taken from a middle ground, fairly close to the subjects. However, in other images Lyon stood further back, giving us more of the subway environment, whether the pairing of a gum dispenser and a weight scale & horoscope machine or the warning “DO NOT STAND HERE” on a column against which a tired woman leans. The Rollei is a square format device and there is a tendency to center the subject, which is evident in most of these images. One shot bucks the trend showing the 7 train in the bottom half of the frame, letting the curse of the tunnel roof fill the top half and lend a feeling of openness to the otherwise close feel of most of the other images.
The original color transparencies have been blown up and mounted in light boxes along the wall for this subway installation. While this allows for the full dynamic range of the originals to be better presented, the glossy surface of these light boxes does pick up the reflection of the overhead lights and passerby, detracting from the full appreciation of the photographs. I would have preferred poster-sized prints despite the shortening of the dynamic scale. However, few passerby stop to look at the images as they make their way through the concourse. I would suggest that these images are best appreciated by standing against the opposite wall and watching today's commuters pass under the gaze their forbears from 1966.