Photography and Public Transport
The most common misunderstanding about Street Photography is to assume that it is about a location, the ‘Street’, when it is really a particular ‘approach’ to picture making in any place that the public gather. It is not surprising then that Street Photographers make great pictures in art galleries and museums, on beaches, in parks, malls, arcades and on trains and buses.
For the last three winters I have taken advantage of the dark evenings to photograph discretely into the top deck of London Buses, the pictures reveal intimate moments of commuters journeys between work and home, a strange lost time that they fill by reading, sleeping, staring, thinking and engaged with their tablets and phones. People in transit tend to adopt a small temporary territory, their seat, their bit of window, their half of the arm rest and they diligently ignore those around them in the hope of being themselves ignored. Words are not spoken, eye contact is not made. You will not see these people again, emotional investment is considered pointless.
I am obviously not the first photographer to be drawn to making pictures of people in transit and I am not the first to notice the state of public anonymity that passengers acquire.
In 1938 Walker Evans went underground to photograph passengers on the New York City Subway. Interested in capturing the everyday routines of anonymous people, Evans wanted to catch his subjects unaware. “The guard is down and the mask is off” he wrote. While I work with a large modern camera, Evans concealed his camera behind his coat with the lens peeking through a button hole in order to make truly unposed portraits of those sitting opposite him. Evans also apparently invited his friend and photographer Helen Levitt to accompany him hoping her presence would help him be less noticeable.
Evans’s Subway pictures made over three years were eventually published in 1966 under the title ‘Many Are Called’.
Between 1997 and 2000 my in-public colleague Christophe Agou followed in Evans footsteps and set out to photograph on the New York Subway, working with a small Leica Rangefinder he shot at close range without concealing his camera. The pictures convey the physical intimacy with which he shot his subjects.
“My approach was to observe and not to attract attention, letting my eye intuitively discover the reality under the surface. I did not hide my camera and shot very little. The distance that separated me from my subject was only the length of my arm.”
Christophe named the project ‘Life Below‘ and published it in 2004.
Between 1994 and 1996 Photographer John Schabel took his Nikon and 500mm lens with 2x converter to several airports and photographed passengers seated in their planes at the gate. His subjects weren’t actually flying, but he says “many of them appeared to have transitioned into their flying mentality, which is really what he was after”
“I felt like they were on their way at that point, they were getting into that [flying] frame of mind”
The pictures are grainy and black and white and remind one of long lens press shots, the passengers are not really recognisable as individuals but there is a sense of an emotional human entity on the inside of the glass.
London based Glaswegian, Dougie Wallace, has been attracted to photographing people on public transport for some years. Dougies work includes photographing people in Indian Taxis, European Trams and London Buses. Working with a flash and wide lens Dougie shoots the working class underbelly of city life without mercy or artifice, his subjects are revealed with all their flaws and humanity displayed. The pictures from his recent Omnibus series are shot so close to the subjects that you are hardly aware of the bus environment or the glass separating them from the lens.
German born Michael Wolf lives in Hong Kong, his impressive body of work focuses on life in mega cities. He is probably most well known for his long running project Tokyo Compression the first book of which was published in 2010. Wolf photographed passengers on the Tokyo Subway through the windows as they are literally packed into the carriages during the rush hour.
Tokyo Compression depicts an urban hell and by hunting down these commuters with his camera, Wolf highlights their complete vulnerability to the city at its most extreme.
Wolf has chosen to make his pictures tight, mostly including only the head of the subject in each frame. We often see the actual discomfort of the passenger through the condensation covered glass and on occasions eye contact is made with the lens. Issues of voyeurism and privacy have often been central to Wolfs work especially in subsequent series where he has photographed through the windows of glass Manhattan apartment buildings. You could not say that these pictures were candid observations, more that the subjects whilst aware, had no choice due to their situation and circumstances.
Tom Wood spent 20 years travelling the streets of Liverpool by bus shooting a portrait of the city from the perspective of a passenger. Apparently shooting 3000 rolls of film the work has been published in two books, All Zones off Peak (1998) and Bus Odyssey (2001). Wood made his pictures from within buses but also from the pavement and the bus stop. Sometimes he shot out through the windows and other times he shot people across the isle. It seems that Wood used the buses and their journeys as a device with which to get close to the working class people of Liverpool, he made those journeys himself, became one of them and was able to make these intimate pictures. In many frames the passengers make eye contact with Wood but they seem relaxed and un offended by his picture making. Interestingly Tom Wood is an example of a photographer who resists having his images on the internet and so these pictures and the project are not well seen.
“When the stuff is too journalistic and documentary then it is journalism, if it is too conceptual and arty then that is another thing, but when the two meet – that is interesting.”
Between 1999 and 2003 New York based French Photographer Jean Christian Bourcart photographed those stuck in their vehicles in traffic on Canal Street, Manhattan.
“The people behind the tinted windows of their large sedans look melancholy and resigned. Others, in buses and taxis, appear bored, overwhelmed by the long day. I stand on the sidewalk, examining them with a powerful telephoto lens.I watch them watching me, incredulous, stupefied, like an animal caught in a car’s headlights at night. Some of them don’t move. Others try to turn away, protect themselves with a newspaper or their hand. And then there are those who confront my mechanical gaze -mostly women -, abandoning their image to a fate they cannot control”
These picture convey the dry heat and claustrophobia of Canal Street in the summer, shot tightly on a long lens, there is a foreshortening effect that flattens the images almost to two dimensions. People appear to be photographed in private vehicles as well as buses or coaches all stationary in the city. We all recognise and dread their situation, trapped in their vehicles, trapped in the traffic, trapped in the city.
I thought I would end this review of transit related photography with something completely different but related. Photographer Ben Graville photographed the arrival and departure of prisoners to the London Court known as The Old Bailey. Holding his camera aloft and using a flash gun to penetrate the glass and illuminate the small holding cells within, each picture relied on a degree of luck to capture the inhabitant sharp and lit.
“Devoid of the public gaze you often hear remand prisoners banging on the window of the van to attract attention, a reaction I received as well photographing. This want to be heard or seen is present in the photos showing how the process of criminal law mystifies and intensifies the situation as the prisoner travels between the remand prison and the Old Bailey”
This series of pictures came about as a result of Bens job as a Press Agency photographer specialising in Criminal and Civil Law over four years but they also have their own fascinating aesthetic caused by the wide lens, flash light and tinted glass. Each records a very private and intense moment in the lives of these prisoners, a world that most of us will never see.
Whenever one starts a new series as a photographer there is the danger that if you were inspired by your subject, somebody else will inevitably have been inspired by something similar before you. These photographs demonstrate that even if that is the case each individual photographer brings their own unique vision and technical approach that produces a wide diversity of equally fascinating imagery. When I started making my pictures for Through A Glass Darkly I was very much aware of the projects above but I knew my pictures would work in a very different way. Like the American Road Trip there seems to be a tradition of making photographs of people on public transport and it remains a major aspect of most peoples daily life and experience of city living. The important thing for me was to make myself aware of work that might inform my own project so that my contribution to this history and record has it’s own loud and individual voice.