John Slaytor mentioned his work almost in passing in a comment yesterday. To make this darkly emotional series of portraits, John says, "I photographed commuters in trains from the outside of the train as they passed me by, approximately one and a half meters away at forty kilometers an hour. I couldn't see the commuters and they couldn't see me."
To photograph them, he had to work at ISO 12,000 and 1/3000th sec.
Another reader, John Krumm, said of the subjects of these portraits, "So many look like they are being led to their deaths, or...just lost a loved one."
To look at these, I let my eyes linger on each shot for longer than usual before clicking on to the next one, thinking about the context, of a subway car full of strangers rushing past in a blur, returning from their obligations or destined for them.
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Featured Comment by Mahn England: "These extraordinary photos for me evoke a story that my Dad tells of his mother, Ella, who raised his two brothers and him single-handedly. Ella explained to Dad that, in her busy life working and raising her sons, the only time she had to worry about life was on the train going to and coming home from work."
Featured Comment by Kenneth Tanaka: "Now we're talkin' photography with creative vision! 'Lost in Transit' borders on the sublime. It's simply wonderful work. I bow.
"However, John's series is excellent but it's by no means new or made possible by digital cameras. The idea and its pursuits are very, very old.
"During the 1930s Walker Evans covert created a remarkable body of covert images of fellow subway riders using a camera concealed under his coat.
"Ten years later Stanley Kubrick, the great film director before he was the great film director, was doing the same. (Kubrick was a very accomplished and knowledgeable photo enthusiast.)
"Fast forward to the 1980s when Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson was snappin' away on the NYC subways, producing a fabulous book of the work. (He was also lucky to have survived a few beatings and muggings in the process.)
"No, capturing people in-transit is as old as transit. But John's still done a nice job with this small series."
Mike replies: I think I'll have to disagree with you insofar as you're implying that this is old hat. (Although your tour via links is wonderful.) Considering just Walker Evans's pictures, I think John's pictures are better than Walker's, and that technology is indeed the reason—he could presumably take hundreds or thousands of pictures from outside the subway cars as they hurtled past, whereas Evans was limited to photographing whoever he sat across from, until he got up and moved or until they got up and someone else sat down. It might not be different in terms of basic subject matter, but John's pictures are far more beautiful, and I find them far more moving too. Evans's subway pictures feel more like a willful gimmick to me. Although a few of them are quite beautiful, in general his artistic choices were very limited, and the pictures show it. John could capture true candids, with no intrusion on his subjects if he chose (I presume the one picture of the man looking at him was taken when a train was stopped?), whereas many of Walker's subjects were looking right at him and presumably knew or suspected what he was up to. Like this one:
What Evans got for the most part was people being wary toward a stranger; what John Slayton manages to convey in many of these portraits is a soul alone.
From the first time I saw them decades ago I've never found Evans's subway portraits convincing as a group. They always felt like a failed experiment to me. John, on the other hand, has succeeded in doing what one suspects Evans only wanted to do.
Just my own take, of course, my own guesses.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "I agree with Mike on this. I think that when the others were shooting, people still had on their wary (or social) faces. These people have turned away from the train into a private space—the emptiness outside the window—and so we see their private faces. I also love the moody, tonal effect brought by the lack of light. Good stuff.
"Also, now that I think about it, it's not really obvious to me that, if I'd thought of shooting subway riders, I would have thought about shooting them from outside a moving train. There's a pretty well-known landscape photo in a rather sere landscape of the Southwest somewhere, showing a train crawling across the vast landscape from some distance (I can't put my finger on exactly who shot it.) But the fact is, I see such a thing almost every time I drive from L.A. to Santa Fe, and it just leaps out at you: here's a nice photo. All you have to do is see it, once, to have that thought. How many people have seen these portraits flashing by at night in a subway, and haven't thought to do this?"
Reply from Ken Tanaka: "Mike, Better? Worse? The works are not on the same basis for such absolute judgements. John's series is more emotionally evocative and seductive than Evans's. It poses more questions than it answers. But Evans's series is, I believe, quite valuable for its matter-of-fact documentary value. Which, come to think about it, is the what I see as the core value of most of Evans' work. Personally, I prefer looking at John's images, too."
Featured Comment by Don: "Wonderful series of portraits, but I found the sweeping statement alongside them detracted:
These portraits, which are not confined to any one ethnic, gender, social or age group show the universality of our society's resignation to its loss of freedom.
"The daily commute is grim, but everyone is there by free choice. I'd suggest we have more freedom now than ever before (well, for those in western democracies, where these were taken). Freedom from: disease, early death, starvation, aggressive 'tribes' (mobs are here still, but we can avoid them), religion, lack of education etc. Instead, we freely choose to give up laying in bed all day because we want to go earn more cash. That's the photographer interpreting his viewpoint onto the images, one which may well not exist. We are not forced to be slaves to consumerism. We may feel enslaved by circumstance, but actually we are not.
"What makes me despair is not a lack of freedom, but how we squander it.
"It also makes me consider how selective editing could produce a different set—smiling faces going on holiday, meeting a loved one, chatting with a friend etc.
"Definitely randomly excellent though."
Mike replies: It's interesting what you bring to the photos, but somewhat ironic that you object to the photographer's interpretation when you have such an involved interpretation of your own.
Reply to Don from Ed Hawco: "I don't think one has to look very far to find many social and artistic reactions to the kind of 'loss of freedom' that John Slaytor is talking about. It's not the kind of absolute loss you'd experience if you were thrown in jail (although arguably that would bring a kind of existential freedom as you are no longer required to work in order to be fed and sheltered).
"The 'rat race' can most definitely be oppressive, and many people have a lot less freedom to choose than you might think. I've been a victim of that rat race, and it can crush your will to live. I live modestly, don't over-spend, am not mortgaged to the eyeballs, etc., so it's not like it's 'my own fault.' But I must work, and there have been times when my choices have been very limited.
"Driving two or three hours a day through congested traffic, or riding two or three hours a day on crowded subways and commuter trains can really grind you down, especially if the job you finally get to is not one you enjoy but is the only one available for the time being.
"No, it's not like living in a concentration camp or in North Korea, which is why Slaytor qualifies is statement by referring to the loss of 'existential' freedom. But make no mistake; millions of people in the so-called 'free world' are miserable and feel trapped in their circumstances."
Featured Comment by John Slaytor (the featured photographer): "Many thanks, Mike, for allowing me to share my work with such an intelligent audience whose comments I have appreciated.
"Reader John Krumm stated:
So many look like they are being led to their deaths, or...just lost a loved one
"This comment for me is very pertinent since the documentary film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann was the major trigger for my project. I also photograph funerals and I have come to realise I do so for the same reason that I photographed the train commuters—I want to promote human dignity, and I've found, ironically, that this is best done when the subject is oblivious to my camera.
"At this point I should note that TOP also influenced my exhibition since it introduced me to Saul Leiter's masterpiece, Early Color, which has had a profound impact on my understanding of how colour can affect mood.
"Recent work similar to mine for me would be Michael Wolf's Tokyo Compression and Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Heads series.
"Like many others, I have experimented with photographing fellow passengers from within carriages but have come to realise that there are few unguarded moments.
"Referring to Don's comments, for my exhibition I photographed 4000 images of train commuters before settling on 19 to be exhibited. I was selective in my choice, but not one of the 4000 images caught anyone smiling or chatting. A lot of them caught people plugged into iPods or staring at their phones.
"All of my commuter images were technically flawed; however this seems to have maximised their emotional impact on viewers by allowing the viewer to focus on mood rather than the subject's imperfections.
"Incidentally, the vertical black stripes were caused by the refection of the railway fence on the train windows.
"What I don't understand is why the images are so timeless."
Featured Comment by Derby Chang: "We lucky Sydney-siders have a wonderful photo festival every year, Head-On, just drawing to a close now. John's 'Lost in Transit' was a highlight for me this year. His blog post about his experience at the show is very good reading."
Featured Comment by Ann Courtney: "A neat idea which has produced highly evocative images, people lost in thought and with their 'society' guard down. Every shot shouts loneliness and isolation. Sterling work!"
Mike replies: Those 27 words perhaps sum up this post the best.