We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects its own skein.
—Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”
My interests turned to the subway in the mid-2000s, when New York’s economic and cosmetic ambitions seemed to leach into the tunnels. With the arrival of new trains, familiar graffiti and rust gave way to stainless steel and layers of reflective glass. I missed much of the character that got polished away, but felt captivated by the view. Reflections from inside the trains and out moved every direction at once, drawing passengers into a mirage of ghosts and fragments. Meanwhile, their faces suggested retreat to a privacy far from the visual chaos around them.
Although photographers since Walker Evans have captured private moments on crowded trains, I’d never seen them framed like this—abstracted from the world, entangled with one another, merged with the surfaces of landscape and machine. It’s possible that more than ever, we seek privacy and autonomy in public spaces, even ones that seem designed to commodify us. The irony of solitude in a crowd, whether it feels dark or hopeful, has found a perfect frame in the subway’s collage of reflections and obfuscations. It inspired me to explore.
I started photographing when I found a camera that could be hand-held and that could see in the underground light. A working visual vocabulary, different from any I’ve used before, developed on its own. I felt more like a passenger than a driver of the process.
I was also drawn, as I’ve often been, to images that defamiliarize and disorient. With these pictures, the act of photographing was itself disorienting. A woman who appeared in the next car, might, when I lowered the camera, be revealed standing behind me. The man who appeared pressed against her might be walking the platform outside. Such sensory puzzles mirror many of my experiences of the world. They also focus my attention in ways that more straightforward formal arrangements rarely do.
I took all the photographs between August and November, 2012.
The subway’s kaleidoscopic view reminds me of the surrealists and early modern photographers, with their reflective storefronts and funhouse mirrors. At the same time it feels contemporary. Artists of every type have been assembling and reassembling versions of reality, possibly expressing the fragmented feeling of the early 21st century, when being seems to have quit the body for a global cloud of social networks and instant transactions. Photographers may also be commenting on the dubious trustworthiness of their medium, or even on the trustworthiness of our eyes and the assumptions behind them.
Whatever a photographer’s intent, one of our medium’s defining limitations is its inability to see past surfaces. The personalities, metaphors, and narratives we discover within the frame seduce us, until we remember they’re just traces of light from the facades of things. We’ve begun to let go of an article of faith John Szarkowski attributed to all photographers: that surfaces, in addition to being beautiful, can actually be true.
But we don’t let go all the way. For a good photograph I remain happily suggestible. I’ll indulge its surfaces and their often ambiguous connotations. I’ll marvel at a surface’s ability to evoke multiple readings at once, and sometimes—through the alchemy of transparencies and reflections—multiple referents.
This might explain why in all these pictures, the camera points at a window. A window frames a view, and may also reflect, obscure (with dust, scratches, glare) or perform a mix of these mediations. I tried photographing passengers directly, with no intervening glass, but kept returning to the window pictures. They illuminated the underground world, and each other, in the most compelling ways.
I’m reminded of the 18th century gentry, forming landscapes with their Claude-glasses (which included both frame and mirror); gallery frames separating art from imperfect reality; Alice’s looking-glass leading to a netherworld; Szarkowski’s binary of mirror and window (art that points to its maker vs. art that points to the world); video surveillance screens dividing subject from object; and Foucault’s notion of mirror as heterotopia (a space that exists and does not, that resides one place and refers to all places).
A window also echoes the camera’s viewfinder, which itself stands in for the theatrical proscenium. Street photographers have long used the stage as a metaphor for their view. However, the view I’ve been exploring reveals less of the Shakespearean individualism implied by much of last century’s street photography, and more of the isolated, absurdist anti-drama of Beckett. It may also suggest a return to the Greek stage, where characters submit to fates and gods—the new gods reborn as technology and officious social institutions, both of which are so well manifested in the trains.
The technology god also emerges in the hypnotic glow of tablets and phones, so present in these pictures they hardly need mentioning. If the printed page puts us two places at once, digital media puts us everyplace—a heterotopia in every pocket on every train.
Yet the body remains, usually framed by a window. This situation temps me for all the reasons mentioned, but raises questions. Does a window used this way become a tool for appropriating and subjugating? Does it harden the border between subject and object? If a motif in this work is alienation, am I recording it passively or also contributing? Is my distance a response to passengers’ isolation, or just a landscape photographer’s fear of approaching people directly?
These photographs have given me much more to think about, especially concerning trains and the ways we relate to them. We enter them for the purpose of being elsewhere. We occupy them as static space when they are everything but. We spend time in them that seems outside of time. We move through them, are moved by them, and watch them move by. In these ways they are spatially and temporally disorienting, like many other contemporary places, physical or virtual.
And so the disorientation is familiar—another paradox. My friends have found in these pictures resemblances to jails, aquariums, mazes, cathedrals, and even hospitals—all places that point to the world at large, whether through metaphor, reflection, or microcosm. Much like an ordinary mirror, or an ordinary ride on the subway.
All images are from a single exposure. Nothing has been composited or retouched.
Pigment ink on baryta-coated, heavy photo paper, 17 x 25 inches. Editions of 10
Mounted in custom welded stainless steel shadow-box frames: $1900.
Prices and available mounting may change.
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