Friday, December 14, 2007

"Many Are Called"

I was sitting on the subway this morning, riding uptown, and noticed my reflection in the opposite window - dark glasses, bow tie, rumpled blazer and overcoat, punctuated by an expressionless mouth. I was immediately reminded of that great Walker Evans book, Many Are Called, which was reissued a couple of years ago after years out of print. Between 1939 and 1941, Evans clandestinely photographed New York City subway riders, hiding a Contax camera under an overcoat with a shutter release fed to his hand via cable. Leafing through Evans' images one is struck by the diversity of riders for pre-war New York. Even then the subway could be a multi-cultural petri dish into which a higgledy-piggledy solution of riders was stirred. Yet one wonders how Evans would react to the heterogeneous mixture of people one encounters today.

I know people who refuse to ride the subway, preferring taxis (expensive) or buses. Arguing that it's dirty and dangerous, they're missing one of the best shows in the city, all for only a $2 admission charge. Besides, it's pretty safe and is no dirtier than any other place in New York City. Moreover, with the "Poetry in Motion" program and the subway art series, a ride on the train can be an educational experience - and I don't mean in a sociological sense.

One thing strikes me in a comparison of Evan's images and the scenes I witness each day: The expressions on riders' faces haven't really changed in 65 years, which I guess shouldn't be surprising. Sure, the ladies usually wore hats and gloves and the men sported fedoras or caps in their underground travels, but most simply sat expressionless, waiting for their stop, remaining largely anonymous in the herd of New Yorkers being shunted about. The visage staring back at me this morning could have been pulled from Evans' book with no incongruity.

It's funny how the subway can reduce us all to a humming hive of workers and drones. I'm also often reminded of scenes from Fritz Lang's monumental silent film epic, Metropolis. But if that's an apt analogy, I wonder if we're all that brainwashed and unhappy.


Isabel said...

I never heard of this book. Thanks for the info.
I grew up riding the subway to school (the fastest way to get anywhere in Lisbon).
I was about 11 when I started doing it by myself. My mom and I used to meet for lunch two or three times a week and ride to downtown Lisbon for some window shopping or sightseeing (the Portuguese are very much like the Italian-lunch breaks extend for a good two hours, without sparing a stop for an espresso and some out of this world pastries).
In those times (boy do I feel old) the subway system was still rudimentary. What a difference now!
Every single station is now a show of art and the city's history.
You can check it out at
When I go for a visit, I still take the subway everywhere. It makes me feel home!

One Wink at a Time said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post. There have been times that I've caught my reflection in a mall or wherever and caught off-guard, been surprised by the intensity of my own expression.
I love Evan's idea and am imagining the thrill he must have experienced while compiling the photographs. I've always enjoyed "people watching" and love to imagine what sort of lives people have, looking for clues in their dress, expressions, posture, etc.