Watching Strangers: Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

Walker Evans

There is a voyeuristic fascination that we have about strangers. About their thoughts, their dreams, their life. Who are they? Do they live different lives than us? Better? Worse? We like that mystery, we like to think that we can guess what kind of people they are just by looking at them, we like to imagine what kind of life they live, what are their hopes and worries. Photography, in a certain sense, indulges this fascination of ours without us risking anything. Especially in the case of people who are not aware of being photographed. We get to look without being looked at, without even being seen. In a way, we get to know other people without any actual contact. Sometimes we get to see them in their relaxed state, and that gives us a sense of intimacy that other art forms can rarely provide.

These feelings of mystery and voyeurism are excellently nourished by American photographer Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) in his series of “subway portraits.” With a 35 mm camera strapped to his chest under his coat, the lens barely peeking out between two buttons, Evans took pictures of people riding the New York City subway. He started in 1938 and by 1941, he made over six hundred photographs. Eighty-nine of these images were eventually published as a book, Many Are Called, in 1966.

Walker Evans gained fame primarily for his book with writer James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (published in 1941), documenting the effects of the Great Depression on three rural, poor families in southern Alabama, in the summer of 1936. He was also the first photographer to get a solo exhibition, in 1938, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Evans was very much influenced by literature (being an avid reader and having literary ambitions as a young man), and he sought to infuse some of its qualities (such as lyricism and incisive description) into photography. In 1933, Evans was assigned to document the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado (the Cuban President at that time) for journalist Carleton Beals’ book, The Crime of Cuba. There Evans befriended Ernest Hemingway, with whom he spent many nights drinking, and who even loaned Evans money to extend his stay in Havana. Evans’ photographic style seems to have been influenced by Hemingway, whose unpretentious and laconic realism keeps an underlying melancholic and poetic tone.

This manner of seeing reality can be felt in Evans’ subway portraits, of which here are some examples.

©MoMA (1-3 Source; 4-9 Source)

“The guard is down and the mask is off. Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.” Evans’ observation about his series of photographs accurately describes every one of the people involved. The older lady who is looking to her right, as if something captured her attention. Maybe her stop is next. The old man who looks sad. Maybe he had a death in the family. Does he have a family? Grandchildren? The young lady with a very strange and intense look. Maybe she has mental problems. Or she is just intense. Maybe her lover has left her. The fortyish man who looks upwards to his left, seemingly in a deep thought. Maybe he is thinking about his next project at work, or maybe he’s thinking about what his wife said to him that morning. The two men asleep, dead tired, maybe blue-collar workers, going home from a long day at work. The older gentleman who reads his newspaper undisturbed. He looks like a clerk, or a teacher. Is he really as intelligent as he looks?

We attempt to give meaning to everything, to every image, sometimes making them more important than they really are, based on our own preconceptions and frustrations. We infuse the strangers we see with our own ideas, problems, and/or prejudices. We give them sometimes the lives we would like to have, or a life worse than ours, just to make ourselves feel better. We imagine them, most of the times, being something they probably never were.

The last three people are caught looking directly at the camera, probably looking at Evans himself, and most likely doing the same thing he was doing to them – watching the person in front of them: What is he thinking? Where does he come from? Where does he go? What does he want? We feel a connection with these persons. In a way, they could be any one of us. We can be photographed at any time without realizing. And any one of us or any image of us can become a mystery for others to ponder.

More information on Walker Evans and his work:

  1. Galassi, Peter. Walker Evans & Company. The Museum of Modern Art, 2000, 243-257. Retrieved March 5, 2018
  2. Hacking, Juliet (editor). This Is Photography, 2012, London: Quintessence
  3. Department of Photographs. “Walker Evans (1903–1975).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004). Retrieved March 5, 2018
  4. Retrieved March 5, 2018
  5. Masters of Photography website: Retrieved March 5, 2018

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