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This is a continuation of a series of subway photos that I began in 2009-2010, which you can find here and here on Flickr, and which I’ve continued — on a station-by-station basis — in 2011. The photos in this set were taken in the 116th Street (Pennsylvania Station) IRT station (Columbia University), on the uptown platform, in January 2011.
Over the years, I’ve seen various photos of the NYC subway "scene," usually in a relatively grim, dark, black-and-white format. But during a spring 2009 class on street photography at the NYC International Center of Photography (ICP), I saw lots and lots of terrific subway shots taken by my fellow classmates … so I was inspired to start taking some myself.
One of the reasons I rarely, if ever, took subway photos before 2009 is that virtually every such photo I ever saw was in black-and-white. I know that some people are fanatics about B/W photography as a medium; and I respect their choice. And I took quite a lot of B/W photographs of my own in the late 60s and early 70s, especially when I had my own little makeshift darkroom for printing my own photos.
But for most of the past 40 years, I’ve focused mostly on color photography. As for photos of subways, I don’t feel any need to make the scene look darker and grimier than it already is, by restricting it to B/W. Indeed, one of the things I find quite intriguing is that there is a lot of color in this environment, and it’s not too hard to give some warmth and liveliness to the scene…
To avoid disruption, and to avoid drawing attention to myself, I’m not using flash shots; but because of the relatively low level of lighting, I’m generally using an ISO setting of 3200 or 6400, depending on which camera I’m using. As a result, some of the shots are a little grainy – but it’s a compromise that I’m willing to make.
Thus far in 2011, I’ve been using a small, compact "pocket" camera == the Canon G-12 — in contrast to the somewhat large, bulky Nikon D300 and D700 DSLRs that I used predominately in 2009 anbd 2010. If I’m photographing people on the other side of the tracks in a subway station, there’s no problem holding up the camera, composing the shot, and taking it in full view of everyone. But if I’m taking photos inside a subway car or photos of people on the same side of the platform where I’m standing, I normally set the camera lens to a wide angle (18mm or 24mm) setting, point it in the general direction of the subject(s), and shoot without framing or composing.
What I find most interesting about the scenes photographed here is how isolated most people seem to be. Of course, there are sometimes couples, or families, or groups of school-children; but by far the most common scene is an individual standing alone, waiting for a train to arrive. He or she may be reading a book, or listening to music, or (occasionally) talking to someone on a cellphone; but often they just stare into space, lost in their own thoughts. Some look happy, some look sad; but the most common expression is a blank face and a vacant stare. It’s almost as if people go into a state of suspended animation when they descend underground into the subway — and they don’t resume their normal expression, behavior, and mannerisms until they emerge back above-ground at the end of their ride.
Anyway, this is what it looks like down underground … or at least, this is what it’s like in the stations I’ve visited and photographed so far. If I feel energetic enough in 2011, maybe I’ll try to photograph people in every subway station. It would be interesting to see what kind of variety can be seen…
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.