Project 2.1: The Unaware – Evans, Kuzma and Parr in the Underground

While I was doing the research for this project, I made a trip to Kyiv for work. All the photographs illustrating this post were made during this trip, on the city’s soviet-era metro system. I have known about these pictures for a long time now – indeed one of my clearest memories of the 2010 exhibition Exposed at Tate Modern was standing in front of the glass case containing the blackened Contax Rangefinder hidden beneath his coat by Evans to take his subway pictures –  and have often taken photographs of my fellow travellers on public transport wherever I find myself.

fig.1 – on the Kyiv Metro

I have written about Evans’ subway shots before so – as this course is concerned with identity as well as location – will only add a couple of brief notes here.

Firstly, Margaret North (in her essay,The Significance of Walker Evans’ Many Are Called in Two Distinct Moments) examines the racial makeup of Evans’ subway pictures and finds it less democratically inclusive than New York (‘the melting pot’) had been at the time the pictures were made. While there seems to be a wide cross-section of class amongst Evans’ subject, there are only one asian and two black faces to be found in the eighty-nine plates published in the final book. As this course is about Identity (and Place), this made me wonder how inclusive my exercise in covert portrait-making had been, given the massively diverse nature of the city in which was made. Certainly the five pictures constituting the final edit are exclusively of white subjects (and like Evans, I have managed a better cross-section of class); on the other hand, the unedited set of pictures contains plenty of asian and afro-caribbean faces. My typology from part one is little better.

I need to think about what this means – when editing do I only select pictures that I can identify with easily, where (in Bates’ terms) I can recognise myself in some way? And do I need to make more effort to represent the ethnic make-up of the people I am using as subject matter for my pictures?

Walker Evans is described (in Kozloff, p.149) as a ‘penitent spy and apologetic voyeur […] uninterested in the ego of everyone concerned, including his own’ who knew that ‘this had been a devious and unsavoury thing to do’. He waited nearly thirty years before making his pictures public. Whether this was due to the lack of an outlet or out of a desire to allow time to pass, avoiding embarrassment on behalf of his subjects is a matter of debate. However, if it was common decency that stayed Evans’ hand (or his publishers’) there are no such qualms now. Pictures turn up on internet within seconds of being taken and people are aware of this and therefore much more aware – and suspicious – of people taking photographs in public places.

There is always the possibility of confrontation when you are taking people’s pictures. Walker Evans may have famously exhorted people to ‘Stare,’ but like most of us, I was brought up not to, because it is ‘rude’; there is an uncomfortable element of voyeurism involved in stuff like this. It takes effort to pick up Evan’s baton and a thicker skin than mine not to be quite drained by my occasional forays into street photography…


‘My goal is the quality and simplicity in a photograph. Each of my photographs is carefully crafted guided by my intuition. I am shooting almost everyday since 2010 collecting true moments. ‘ – from the artist’s website.

Unlike Evans, Lukáš Kuzma  did not attempt to conceal what he was doing when he took z series of photographs (available online and as a book – Transit – from Blurb) in the London Underground. Also, unlike Evans (or me) Kuzma’s pictures capture something of the ethnic variety of the city in which he was working.

fig.3 – on the Kyiv metro

In his voiceover to the film Click he characterises what he is doing as ‘a meditation. I don’t see differently, just with more attention; it’s about the process of searching.’ The activity appears to be an end in itself with the photographs (candid, often taken without their subject appearing to notice) as a byproduct. Like Evans with his Contax, Kuzma is using a small, unobtrusive camera (a Fuji X series, similar to the one I’ve been using for the last couple of years as my everyday camera). It is hard to imagine taking covert shots, on the move, with a large SLR and a bag of lenses. Also, the ability of modern digital equipment to cope in low light situations – and metros and undergrounds are definitely gloomy –  makes this genre of photography much easier now than it was in Evans’ day.

I need to get better at varying the sensitivity of my camera’s sensor to reflect the light conditions. One of the nice things about Kuzma’s pictures is their sharpness a problem that besets my pictures in Kyiv is that, movement relative to me (as in fig.3  where I am gong up while the wedding party descend) can lead to softer images. I’ve included this one because there is something nicely surreal about it (a bride – dressed up not bare – descending an escalator rather than a staircase) but would not include it in a final edit for an assignment as it is just too soft; it is possible to desaturate an image in the event of the colour being beyond repair (I suspect this is the case with a number of Kuzma’s pictures included in Transit) but too slow a shutter speed is unfixable.

What Kuzma’s pictures demonstrate really well is that people in transit are mostly too wrapped up in what it is that they are doing to pay attention to what the other people around them – including people with cameras – are doing. People on the move are good subjects for covert photography as they are focussed on where they are going.  If you want pictures of people who are unaware of what you are doing, you need to catch them when they are rapt or distracted or just concentrating on something. There still is the question of whether the resulting picture is representative of the individual or just a moment snatched – like Milliband with the bacon sandwich – from the flow of time, but at least they are not posing. Unless of course, they are…


fig.3 – on the Kyiv metro

 


And finally in this triptych of photographers producing distinct bodies of work on the world’s metros, there is Martin Parr. On Parr’s website, Japanese Commuters (Japonais Endormis in its original French-published form) is described thus:

‘Parr travels the Tokyo subway photographing sleeping commuters, many of whom travel for hours a day. Photographed from above, the 24 colour images give the impression that one is travelling on a busy commuter train looking down at those lucky enough to get a seat.’

Ten of the twenty-four images are reproduced in Williams (pp. 302-303) as part of the section Close Ups in Parrworld. They are virtually identical to one another with the head and shoulders crammed into the frame making the point of both Parr’s proximity to his subjects (objects?) and – the field of vision cuts off before the commuter’s shoulders, each picture contains one person and one person only – the isolation granted them by sleep.The redness of a woman’s lipstick or the geometry of a tie stand out, but the eyes are only hinted at by the line of the eyebrows and the brow itself; the depth of field is narrow, the repetition overt.

You can easily understand the circumstances of the pictures’ taking: Parr – working in Tokyo – spots someone below him, slumped forward  asleep; later he sees another and takes a picture and then, later still, another and then another; at the end of his trip he has a number of pictures – he selects 24 for publication. There is a sense of boredom, of passing time during a commute and also a sense of amusement. None of this says much about Japanese commuters; it does say a lot about Parr and his presence there.

With nearly twenty years’ distance between us and Parr’s time in Tokyo, I feel some uneasiness about how easily this series could slide into various stereotypes about the Japanese, not least of which is that ‘they all look the same’. The question remains of how to picture the unfamiliar without sliding into cliche…

fig.4 – on the Kyiv metro

I did not take any pictures of sleeping passengers in Kyiv and anyway I almost always got a seat. I did however manage to take pictures which made it hard to ignore the presence of someone behind the camera: the green shape at the bottom left of fig.4 is my knee; my camera was partially concealed in my lap and – like Evans – I was shooting blind, basing my timing on what I was looking at and hoping that the frame and focus worked.

As with the pictures in exercise 2.2, I think this sort of reminder of the presence of someone taking the picture is useful in that it helps remind the viewer that they are guided, rather than just experiencing slices of ‘the real’. They know that someone is staring, prying, snooping for them, taking on some of the responsibility for their nosiness about others. And maybe they may reflect on how this might make them (and their guide, the photographer) feel.


Reference:

  1. Williams, Val. (2002) Martin Parr. 2nd Edition. London. Phaidon Press Ltd
  2. North, M. (2014) The Significance of Walker Evans’ Many Are Called in Two Distinct Moments, Art Journal: Vol. 2014 : Iss. 1 , Article 5.
    Available at: http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/art_journal/vol2014/iss1/5 (accessed 19/8/17)
  3. Parr, M. Books by Martin Parr, artist’s website – https://www.martinparr.com/books/ (accessed 18/8/17)
  4. ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870′  London: Tate Modern. May 28th – October 3rd 2010
  5. Lukáš Kuzma; artist’s website: http://www.lukaskuzma.com/ (accessed 19/8/17)
  6. Kuzma, L. (2014) Transit. Self Published via Blurb: http://www.blurb.com/books/5798286-transit (accessed 19/8/17)
  7. Click dir: Ivona Lichá (2015); IP Production. Online video; available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjxkYtJlOsA (accessed 19/8/17)

 

3 thoughts on “Project 2.1: The Unaware – Evans, Kuzma and Parr in the Underground

  1. Michael Millmore

    Lots of detail here Simon, enjoyed reading it. Your comparison with the ethics of Evans taking photographs covertly in the 1930s and possible reactions to this now are interesting and a possible source of exploration. I still find the Evans work troubling in it’s audacity-the key difference between then and now is the technical issues Evans had to take these pictures-nowadays it is as easy as pretending to be on your phone!

    Reply
  2. Pingback: assignment 2 – making the photographs | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

  3. Pingback: assignment 3 – inspiration and research – Paul Graham | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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