Monday, April 8, 2013

The Underground.

For the essay I wish to take a closer look at photographers investigating life in the subway system. 
The subway shows the cities density like nowhere els in the city, as a place were the entire demography of a city not only meets but in most cases are forced passed each individuals “personal-space”. The diversity and the unique ethnicity of each individual becomes clear in the subway, as a place were people with different backgrounds come together. The group Improv Everywhere made a Subway yearbook in 2009, showing the variation of the people coming and going on the trains of New York. 

Riding the subway is a chance to clearly understand peoples psychological behavior when cramped closely together. It is an experience of alternately judging people and ignoring them by gazing in an other direction. When looking at Walker Evans photos not much has changed, what seems different is merely their way of dressing. People still tolerate each others presence the same way.
As a contrast then looking at Michael Wolfs “Tokyo Compression” where people are stuffed into the trains in Tokyos cramped subways.

Many are called
Walker Evans, 1966
Between 1936 and 1941 Walker Evans and James Agee documented the depression-era in rural America1, one of the most provocative books in american literature. While working on this book the two of them also worked together on the less known, but equally important project, “Many are called”2.

With the subway portraits Evans turned away from the carefully composed images of poor farmers and architectural details which had up till then characterized his work. Over a period of 3 years he returned to the New York subway photographing people sitting opposite him with a miniature camera hidden in his coat.

The project makes no political argument, but presents a cross section of people from the New York Subway. In order to achieve the spontaneity he limited himself from farming his pictures to only releasing the shutter hidden in his sleeve. The result is a directness to the person in front of him, they appear off center and pushed to the edge of the photos.

Evans captures people in typical subway behavior, daydreaming or a sleep, and some stare back at him – suggesting he must have looked quite intensely at them to begin with. 

Most of the passengers are white and represent a range of social classes. When choosing the subjects he was attracted to the people with a specific facial expression and unusual clothing. 
When working the images Evans would make precise selection and cropping of his images along with the layout in which they were shown. The book remained unpublished until 1966 when an exhibition of his subway portraits were shown at the Museum of Mordern Art in New York.
James Agee wrote the introduction for the book Many Are Called;
The photographs were made in the subway of New York City, during the late thirties and early forties of the twentieth century. The effort, always, has been to keep those who were being photographed as unaware of the camera as possible. To anyone who understands what a photograph can contain, not even that information is necessary, and any further words can only vitiate the record itself. Because so few people do understand what a photography can contain, and because, of these, many might learn, a little more will, reluctantly, be risked. Those who use the New York subways are several millions. The facts about them are so commonplace that they have become almost as meaningless, as impossible to realize, as death in war. These facts- who they are, and the particular thing that happens to them in a subway- need brief reviewing, and careful meditation. They are members of every race and nation of the earth. They are of all ages, of all temperaments, of all classes, of almost every imaginable occupation. Each is incorporate in such an intense and various concentration of human beings as the world has never known before. Each, also, is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake. Each wears garments which of themselves are exquisitely subtle uniforms and badges of their being. Each carries in the postures of his body, in his hands, in his face, in the eyes, the signatures of a time and a place in the world upon a creature for whom the name immortal soul is one mild and vulgar metaphor.”
Tokyo Compression
Michael Wolf

In Tokyo, cramped subway conditions and aggravated commutes are a normal part of the city rush hours. Michael Wolf captured these extreme conditions and the effect it has on the people in the series “Tokyo Compression”. People hardly has room to breath, but because housing in the city is unaffordable commuters must spend houres in and out of Tokyo everyday. 
"This is the result of capitalism gone wild," says Wolf.

Tokyo is known for it´s huge urban population but this series shows how packed city life really is in Japan. Wolf photographed the Tokyo subway for 15 years and published the “Tokyo Compression” over 3 installments. 
Wolf stands on the platform as the doors closes, and thereby unwillingly captures his subjects. Some stare directly into the lens, others closes their eyes. The images shows exhausted, discomfort, and annoyed people. “They are unwilling subjects trapped in the train window… The images create a sense of discomfort as his victims attempt to squirm out of view or simply close their eyes, wishing the photographer to go away.”1

Wolf first started photographing the subway when he reported a nerve gas attack in 1995. He then spent 20 days photographing the morning rush hours portraying people on their way to work.

1 ”Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, 1941.
2 First published in 1966

The View from the Road

(spell checking in progress)

My interest for the car in the american society led me to The view form the road, a book written by Kevin Lynch, supported by Donald Appleyard and John R. Mayer and originally published in 1964 for the Center of Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The authors analyze in this book the question of aesthetics of highways in USA. Highways are here considerated as vantage viewpoints for urban landscapes, and we could consequently emphasize their potential beauty, "contrasting with their current uglisness". 

The book is mainly written for the engineer who decide the highways routes ; arguing that they should take in consideration the vision and the perception of landscapes from the road  to imagine futures highways  The authors use some cinematographic technicals to ilustrate their theories. The visual sequences of routes are described by different successions of sketches or photographs to simulate the motion of the viewpoint of the driver. All of them are from the inside of the car, with the windscreen as a frame. This technical can therefore be linked to Lee Friedlander work, who capture the face of the american society with pictures from his car  in the serie America By Car. The aim of both works are surely differents, and the motion is does not appear on  Friedlander’s work, but they both considerate the car and the streets as windows on society, and as a starting point to understand the city. From that point it is interresting to compare these studies, and try to see if the artistic work of Friedlander finds a particular resonance in theoric work of Kevin Lynch, to see if the strength of the pictures can be explained by analyzes of the view that a driver own from a road. 

In the first part of The view form the road, Kevin Lynch describe the elements of attention on the road. The visual takes here a huge importance in the sensation of the road and of  car’s motion. Friedlander use different levels of perception, shifting from big perspective on empty roads to small details as signs in city center, and in the same time from striking big perspectives to trivial details. The position of the photographer in the car, visible thanks to the presence of the elements of the inside of the car on the picture (windows, steering wheel ..) follows the same logical as well, shifting from a frontal view on larges lanscapes to a lateral view on the side of the car on tightened shots. This natural effect, represented in some pictures is described in The view form the road : "As speed increases, attention is confined to a narrower forward angle, since coming events must be predicted furthur ahead. As near objects rush past more rapidly, they are harder to perceive and attention may shift to more distant and relatively more stable elements. Landmarks are seen in clusters rather than singly ; larger spaces and bigger land form take command. The scene shifts from details to generality".

"Shifts from details to generality" in Friedlander’s pictures

Direction of the passenger's view on the road, Kevin Lynch

The car window as a frame of the american society

(spell checking in progress)

Recent history of the united states is intimately linked to the history of the automobile and the effects it has had on lifestyles. It is the symbol of freedom that has characterized the American society. More than a simple object of consumption, cars have been elevated as a modern way of living. They shaped lifestyles but also landcapes, wich were made around them. Cities such as Detroit or Atlanta are the concrete symbolization of that societal phenomenon, they are made by cars and for cars. As a central issue of american society, automotive and their resuting lanscapes constitue a recurring theme for photograph from 50’s to now. 

Detroit satellite views - Google Maps

From the outside

The importance of the automobile in society is particulary recurrent among the phtographers wich use Evan’s «Documentary style». The photographic exhibition New Topographics can be seen as a starting point of the car society as a central subject. Sore’s or Baltz’s pictures of suburbian areas with their empty and anonymous huge streets, parking lots and warehouses are a portrait of that part of the USA in wich man made landscapes seems to be not made for humans. 

That paradoxical face of the american society, unsightly and bearer of a myth at the same time is also shown in William Egglestone work. Dramatic urban lanscapes are here sublimated by a intensification of colors, giving theme an cinematographic aspect. As hilm Maker Michael Almereyda said on Eggleston’s work : «the commonplace becomes resplendent»

William Egglestone

From the inside

In most recent Lee Friedlander work, the automobile is not only the subject for the photographer but tends to be his own frame. As the serie title America By Car  suggests, cars are no longer just a founding element of the society but also a way to see it. Most of that pictures are taken through the windscreen, givin again a cinematographic vision of urban landscapes.. 

A New American Picture by Doug Rickard can be seen as a futuristic version of that work. Pictures are here selected from Google street view system. The point of view is quite different then, above eye level on the roof of the car. The process is automated with a wide angle camera taking everything which can be seen from the street. Cars seem here to take supremacy on human eye, giving theme a social documentary apect.

Doug Rickard

Lee Friedlander

The symbol of automobile and his role in the american post war society is a major subject for phtographers. It reveals a main face of USA, mixing common places and symbol of supremacy. It also reveals some backhand of that society, such as social exclusion. From that point, those pictures can be seen as well as a political critique of urban development, turning cars into a mode of expression more than a simple photographic subject.

Gary Winogrand – a chauvinist pig?

I had never heard of Gary Winogrand or indeed seen any of his work when I first flicked through the pages of 'Man in the Crowd, The Uneasy Streets of Gary Winogrand' but one thing was clear to me – he liked women. Women of 1960s New York had discovered sexuality and were embracing it and they had Winogrand's attention.

'Women interest me – how they look, yes certainly how they look, and their energy'

It wasn't until after I'd picked up on this recurring subject that I realised he had put together an entire book of images of women called 'Women are Beautiful'. This book is supposedly the only book that Winogrand edited entirely himself. He had originally wanted to call it 'Confessions of a Male Chauvinist Pig' but his publisher didn't approve.

I agree with Winogrand's publisher's decision. In my opinion there is nothing chauvinistic about the way he photographed women. To me he was celebrating their beauty, their energy and the newfound sense of sexuality and empowerment that the 60s had brought them. Winogrand himself said, "I suspect that I respond to their energies, how they stand and move their bodies and faces. But what came first? Was it his love of the female subject or was it that they suited his style as a photographer?

Winogrand, the man in the crowd, was driven by the energy of the New York street. The crowds facilitated his style of shooting. They allowed him to get lost. More often than not, his subjects were unaware that they were subjects and if they did notice, Winogrand's charm gained their momentary trust and allowed him to capture them at their ease. As a women myself, I can only imagine how I'd react if I discovered a complete stranger taking my photo as I walked down Grafton Street trying to mind my own business. I suspect I would either be creeped out or flattered. My guess is Winogrand succeeded in eliciting the latter reaction in his subjects. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that I doubt men of the 60s would have reacted as favorably to the flirtatious winks of Winogrand.

Winogrand's disregard for the importance of composition has been noted repeatedly. When your go-to location is a busy city street and your subject of desire is women rushing from one appointment, be it lunch, hair or business-related to another, this seems a necessary move. When watching a documentary recently on street photographer Bill Cunningham, I could not help but notice the similarities in the shooting methods of both photographers. Both photographers are drawn to the women of New York – busy women with places to be.

When watching both men at work, we can see them almost throwing the camera to their face in an attempt to capture their subject. A mere millisecond-length squint through the viewfinder is enough to ensure their lense is pointed in the right direction. For them, the horizon is mere background noise and the street, a mere backdrop. Both men rarely had a preconceived idea of what they were looking for when they embarked on a day of shooting, but rather, they let the street speak to them. Both too are masters of the type of disguise necessary to go unnoticed when taking a stranger's photo.

Stylish women form the centre of Cunningham's photographic world. He is unfazed by their social status or their rank in the fashion industry. His only interest is what they chose to wear that day. Our eyes are drawn to the bold prints, cuts and overall risque wardrobe choices of Cunningham's women. Composition is not a concern.

Initially I thought Winogrand's women were simply and straightforwardly, beautiful women. However, it seems to me now, that he too was drawn to the clothes they wore and the purpose they could serve in drawing our eye to the particulars of each image that had captured his attention in the first place. More often than not, Winogrand seemed interested in clothes that were perhaps revealing a little too much of the area they were intended to cover...shorts that had ridden up uncomfortably on the wearer, a skirt being stretched across a women's thigh as she walked, the neckline of a top that had moved slightly too far in one direction. 

In one case, it's the way in which a dress is being blown against a woman's body, highlighting her pregnant bump. 

Indeed one may accuse Winogrand of being this self-labelled 'chauvinist pig' but on the other hand, we could look at it as though he was celebrating their beauty and appreciating that moment when the energy of their movement allowed him and us a glimpse at their inherent femininity.