Subway Portrait, Walker Evans (1938-41)
Jonathan Jones
Saturday September 14, 2002

Artist: Walker Evans (1903-75) photographed a ruinous, time-worn, battered America, an anonymous country of road trips, peeling-paint churches, frayed movie posters. He is the legendary visual chronicler of the Depression, author with James Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , a report on rural poverty in Alabama with Agee's words and Evans's pictures of thin, pinched, yet richly characterised sharecroppers. When the book was published in 1941 no one wanted to know; it was in the radical 1960s that Evans was rediscovered. What people saw then was an art at once documentary and poetic - the intense, packed heat of Evans's images, whether of a broken, twisted ornament or of an automobile graveyard.

After his brilliant work in the 1930s, partly for Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration, which sent him to photograph West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, he worked from the 1940s to the early 1960s as a writer, staff photographer and picture editor for Time and Fortune magazines - without much distinction. Evans's genius was sparked by the hard times of the 1930s. He seems to have found little worth looking at in the smooth, affluent post-war world.

Subject: Between 1938 and 1941 Evans surreptitiously shot portraits of strangers in the New York subway, riding trains with a camera concealed under his coat, fitted with a shutter release running inside his sleeve. In 1966, he finally published a book of the pictures, entitled Many Are Called ; in the same year they were exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Distinguishing features: This woman, her face framed by a scarf and with her striking white hair and eyebrows, is in a dream, wandering off into hidden places of thought as the train rattles under the city. In theory, this photograph, taken as part of a calculated series - one person fitting into the mould left by the previous face, each given equal, unemphatic treatment - ought to be cold and anonymous, like a passport picture. On the contrary, Evans discovers the mystery in each individual.

This woman's shadowed eyes, heavy features, head resting on hand and dense clothing suggest griefs and anxieties that are dramatised by the blur of lights, reflections and misty platform glowing in the train window behind her. The window is like a prison, adding to the sense of emotional claustrophobia; the passing, smeared lights are already fading memories.

Evans's subway portraits are extraordinarily romantic images of New York. Each of them is a moment of encounter, or the desire for encounter; as far as we can tell from the pictures, the artist never reveals his project, never speaks to these strangers, though sometimes the subject catches his eye. In others, sitters are caught in moments of anger and menace; a youth in a cap looking frustrated, a grim newspaper reader.

Each of these travellers through the dark tunnels is someone you want to know more about, someone whose fleeting presence is subtly fascinating - yet Evans doesn't elaborate, he just photographs someone else. The seriality implies universality: everyone is part of the same collective life. These people hurtle through the dark, thinking their private thoughts, suspended between moments of their lives, all in the same subterranean gloom.

Inspirations and influences: Evans was not the only artist to see the New York subway as an image of the underworld. In 1938 Mark Rothko painted Subway Scene, a deathly station through which, isolated from each other, people descend to the lower depths.

Where is it? Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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