The New York Subway consists of 468 stations and 1,355 kilometers of track. It is one of the few services that is maintained 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The rattling, rumbling trains announce their arrival by propelling a warm cloud of swirling dust before them. As the carriages grind and screech to a halt, the doors hiss open. Passengers elbow their way out and force their way through the crowds on the platform who are waiting to get on. In less than a minute, the doors close once more and the train thunders on into the dark tunnel.
Taking photographs in the subway is something that the average New Yorker would not do as a rule. It is just too ordinary and unimaginative, with little to catch the eye. As a commuter, you have other things on your mind: you’re in a rush and you’re worrying about how busy it is and whether the trains are running on time. On 27 October 1904, the day that the subway was officially opened to the public, one passenger said, “Once you get on board, there’s nothing to look at except your fellow passengers, and that becomes tedious very quickly”.
This may be what the average New Yorker thinks, but for an attentive spectator, observing people can offer boundless fascination. Public transport in a major metropolis is a living, breathing record of the psychological, social and economic mood of the times, and a veritable melting pot of metropolitan society.
Between 1862 and 1864, Honoré Daumier painted ‘The Third-Class-Carriage’, a French train carriage full of tired travellers. The painting inspired Walker Evans to photograph the subway of New York between 1938 and 1941. Because Evans had the feeling that he had broken the unwritten rule that people in the subway should be left alone, his photos did not see the light of day until 1966. They are featured in the book ‘Many Are Called’, which includes an introductory text by James Agee and offers a wonderful insight into society in America during the Great Depression.
Christophe Agou (b. 1969 in France) took up this particular baton from 1997 to 2000. He had been living in New York for five years when he started work on this project – long enough to have shed the rose-tinted glasses but short enough to still retain a sense of the initial disarming affection that the city had evoked in him. The book of photographs ‘Life Below’ was published in October 2004, and coincided with the centenary of the New York Subway.
Walker Evans had carried out his work in secret, by hiding the camera at chest height underneath his jacket. He kept one button undone to allow the lens to poke through, and a cable release ran through his right sleeve. Because of the need to wear a coat, Evans could only take photographs during the winter. Agou, however, took his photographs openly and at all times of the year. He used a Leica and two wide-angle lenses, a 28mm and a 35mm. Nothing more - no bag, no flash bulb, no tripod and no light meter; the process was kept as simple and inconspicuous as possible in order to get the job done quickly.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) tried twice to ban filming, photography and audio recording in the subway. However, vehement protests by journalists and the general public ensured that these plans were never implemented. Recording in all of these forms is still permitted, providing it is done without stands, reflectors or external light sources.
In New York, looking people in the eye can cause problems, leading to animosity and even to aggression. It is easier to photograph people, as long as the photographer’s observation of the subject in question is inconspicuous. Agou had to be a nice, but not particularly eye-catching man. Charming, maybe, with an endearing grin or a quick wink, but not somebody who would arouse hostility or mistrust. Maybe it was his French traits that endeared him to people – his black hair, his thick eyebrows and his Monsieur Hulot hat.
Everybody is in their own world. The train propels forward, and the thoughts in the carriage turn to a diverse range of issues. The people can see that a photograph is being taken, but they are too engrossed in their own thoughts and lives to react.
Christophe Agou takes photographs with a great deal of warmth. His work is not gritty, nor is it intended to shock or humiliate. He handles the camera with compassion, and displays to us a mixture of races and social positions, in which the better-off sections of society seem quite under-represented – they evidently tend to avoid public transport. However, this may well change in light of the rapidly rising energy prices of early 2008, closely followed by the credit crisis. In the final quarter of 2007, the New York Subway transported a total of 6,432,700 passengers on weekdays. This figure has since risen to nearly seven million.
In amongst the melee of passengers travelling under the ground, Agou spotted the remarkable in the midst of the commonplace, something which passes the regular New York commuter by. This particular feat requires the eye of an outsider.
Since then, Agou has thrown himself into a new project, for which he must regularly return to his native district in France. In July 2008, Agou reached the final of the prestigious Prix de la photographie de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts (The Academy of Fine Arts Photography Award) in Paris, for the project he is working on, ‘Face au Silence’, about rural families who live and work in the region of Massif Central. After spending sixteen years in America, he has detached himself sufficiently from his roots to be able to give an objective perspective of French life.
To get as close as possible, it seems, requires a degree of distance.
© Pim Milo, 2009