Walker Evans might be best known for his stark, intimate photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers across a Deep South landscape of roadside cafes and churches.
But Evans also has an extensive history as a New York City street photographer. A St. Louis native, he settled into a Bohemian life in Manhattan in the 1920s, first intending to be a writer before discovering a different kind of poetry in photography.
He captured glimpses of everyday city street life, taking pictures of people on tenement stoops and inside lunchrooms. And from 1938 to 1941, he took his camera underground and shot closeups of anonymous New Yorkers on the subway.
He shot these unsentimental subway portraits secretly, hiding the camera lens between the buttons of his coat, waiting for just the right moment to click the shutter hidden in his coat sleeve.
“Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“‘The guard is down and the mask is off,’ [Evans] remarked. ‘Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.’”
In 1991, The New York Times reviewed a National Gallery exhibit of Evans’ subway photos. “Evans makes no particular political argument through his subway pictures,” the article states.
“Instead he presents a cross section of people, unposed and anonymous, forming what he called a lineup of faces.”
It wasn’t until 1966 when the subway portraits were published in Many Are Called, a book with an introduction by James Agee, who collaborated with Evans on his 1939 portrait of tenant families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Viewing these naked, powerful images today, they demonstrate that subway riding in 1938 was pretty similar to today: a dance of looking away, getting lost in dreams or worries, busying yourself with a newspaper, or finding yourself the object of an off-putting subway stare.
[Photographs copyright Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art]