My inspiration for making the street car pictures? Walker Evans, in Depression-era New York.
“With the subway portraits Evans turned away from the lucid, carefully composed images of architectural details, commercial signs and poor farmers that had characterized his work. On and off over the next three years (1939- 1942), he returned to the New York subways to photograph, using a miniature camera hidden inside his coat to record the people seated opposite him.
Evans makes no particular political argument through his subway pictures. Instead he presents a cross section of people, unposed and anonymous, forming what he called a lineup of faces. To achieve this, he gave up most of the creative controls that photography offers, limiting himself to deciding the precise moment at which to squeeze the shutter release hidden in his sleeve.
The resulting images have a naked directness, a quality accentuated by their casual framing. People appear off center, pushed to the edge of the photographs; many pictures are tilted slightly. The furtive nature of the photographs adds to their sense of authenticity, as does the fact that the people in them are so obviously and absolutely unposed. Evans catches his subjects in typical subway behavior, deep in daydreams, or asleep or gazing off into space. A few stare back at him, suggesting that even without a visible camera he was intently, even aggressively, observing his subjects. Most of the passengers are white and represent a range of social classes.
In choosing which riders to photograph, Evans was attracted not only to people with striking facial expressions but also to those dressed in unusual clothing. One image shows a young woman in a hat and collar made out of fake leopard skin sitting next to a friend wearing a hat trimmed with a less flashy fur. In another picture, a sad-faced man with a pencil-thin mustache and wire-rimmed glasses wears his bowler at a rakish tilt. Elsewhere, the newspapers people are reading and the advertising signs in the background add layers of commentary to the images.
The subway portraits express Evans's deep faith in the power of vision to reveal both the physical appearance and emotional texture of the world. In a text he wrote to accompany these photographs, Evans articulated this faith in looking.
‘Stare,’ he commanded. ‘It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.’”
New York Times article, 1991