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From El to Hell: On Stage in the Urban Underworld

William Chapman SHARPE


Les images du métro new-yorkais et de ses précurseurs, le métro aérien et la voiture à chevaux occupent une place à part dans la culture américaine. Si la descente dans le métro et le déplacement sur des kilomètres de voies souterraines sont presque inévitablement envisagés comme un voyage aux Enfers, cet événement est aussi inéluctablement social. Les passagers s’adonnent à un jeu complexe de cache-cache les uns avec les autres, en essayant de scruter les gens autour d’eux sans toutefois se faire prendre. Dans cet article, j’explore la représentation visuelle et verbale du système de transports de New York dans ses dimensions les plus frappantes — la théâtralité et l’observation des spectateurs. J’emprunte des exemples à la poésie et à la prose, à la peinture et à la photographie, et plus particulièrement aux œuvres de Stephen Crane, Hart Crane, Charles Reznikoff, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, George Tooker, Edward Hopper, Everett Shinn, Thomas Hart Benton, John Sloan, Leroi Jones, et Ralph Ellison. Je me consacre en dernier lieu à une observation plus attentive des photographies de métro obsédantes que Walker Evans prit entre 1938 et 1941. Dans ces photographies d’Evans, le court-circuit visuel caractérisant le rôle des spectateurs dans le métro (voir sans être vu) trouve son expression la plus poignante.

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New York, New York, it’s a helluva town:
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down
And the people ride around in a hole in the ground
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town (1944)

1New York’s double life is not merely linguistic. A second city once surged through the sky, and still burrows underground. The Elevated and the subway belong in a sense to the kingdom of Hades, a parallel urban world of pale spirits that either casts or dwells in an eternal gloom. New York is indeed “a helluva town”, and mass transit ferries people back and forth over the Stygian East River and into the metropolitan underworld with relentless efficiency. In classical mythology, the journey to the underworld is usually conceived as an epic adventure for a unique hero, but in New York it is a mundane and inescapably sociable activity. People come together for a brief “city instant”, the time it takes to get from one stop to another, and then part, usually forever.

2Still, they often leave lasting impressions. This is no surprise in the physical sense, since the Latin root of “instant” is instare, to stand upon, and anyone who has experienced rush hour on the IRT will have been stood upon–or even sat upon–many times. But the impressions can also be psychological and artistic. Ezra Pound’s famous definition of the poetic image seems ready-made for a subway encounter: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Pound 4). And in fact, the most powerful remnant of the short-lived Imagist movement is precisely that, a two-line poem recording an instantaneous visual, emotional, and intellectual perception of the world below:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
“In a Station of the Metro” (1913)

3With its Kore-in-hell motif, Pound’s mini-icon of modernity situates the life and death drive of urban civilization at the underground intersection of thought and feeling, nature and culture, the stationary and the transitory. Though the poem was created in Paris, we can locate it in terms of New York’s own symbolically resonant geography: while we live, we are all “being held momentarily”, as the subway conductors say, at Times Square. Having boarded the train at Mt. Eden in the Bronx, we are headed downtown, to the Lower East Side and South Ferry, where Charon will pick us up. In the essay that follows I will explore the visual and verbal representation of New York’s otherworldly transit system in terms of what may be its most striking motifs—theatricality and spectatorship.

The Visual Ritual

4The essentials of the mass transit experience were set down by Stephen Crane in the 1890s, just as they were being transferred from the doomed streetcars to the El and the subway:

  • 1  Stephen Crane, “In the Broadway Cars”, undated urban sketch (S. Crane188).

there is considerable evening dress about a Broadway car in the evening. A car with its electric lamp resembles a brilliantly-lighted salon, and the atmosphere grows just a trifle strained. People sit more rigidly, and glance sidewise, perhaps, as if each was positive of possessing social value, but was doubtful of all others. […] And perhaps the gods have allowed this opportunity to observe and study the best-dressed crowds in the world […]1.

5The salon-like situation, the social tension, the side-long glances, the delighted discovery of the writer or anyone curious about other people and their interaction—Crane compactly sketches the theatrically-charged atmosphere of the crowded car. The riders who have box seats at the moving picture show are on a moving stage themselves, captive actors as well as captive audience. Since the inception of mass transit most of the train seats have faced each other. So when the El tunnels underground, or it is too dark to see outside, people have little to look at except each other.

6Crane also hints at the complicated visual ritual of the riders. The cardinal rule of subway etiquette seems to have come down to us unchanged from Crane’s day: thou shalt not make eye contact. Hence to see but to avoid being seen to see, the riders do everything they can to frustrate the gaze, to break the visual circuit by looking up, down, vacantly out, seeming to read books, newspapers, the ads overhead or at the end of the car. But everyone looks, hears, reacts in some way to the tenor of life in the car. People in altered states of consciousness put the blasé New Yorker’s mettle to the test, as Crane recognized:

  • 2  S. Crane, “In the Broadway Cars”, 188.

Late at night […] various inebriate persons may perchance emerge from the darker regions of Sixth Avenue and swing their arms solemnly at the gripman. If the Broadway cars run for the next 7000 years this will be the only time when one New Yorker will address another in public without an excuse sent direct from heaven. In these cars late at night it is not impossible that some fearless drunkard will attempt to inaugurate a general conversation. […] He tells of the fun he thinks he has had; describes his feelings; recounts stories of his dim past. None reply, though all listen with every ear2.

7If you dare not look—for a look is statement of interest, a possibly fatal commitment of human emotion—you silently, surreptitiously take it all in: “None reply, though all listen with every ear”. What makes the train-car situation such a special category of urban theater is that social rules dictate that the sociability of it must be almost universally denied. There is a constant tension between the need to behave—especially visually—in the presence of other people, and the need to pretend that they are not there at all. El or subway scenes are consumed with the immense effort of looking while not looking, the endless cycle of vision repressed, vision tempted, vision unbound, vision repressed and released and bound yet again.

8When the crowd thins out, for instance, and the few riders seem lost in their thoughts or their relationships, the tension relaxes for a moment and the inquisitive, hungry gaze lifts its head in the direction of visual fodder. The late-night El was frequented by men or amorous couples; unescorted women were nowhere to be seen. So Everett Shinn’s painting Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight (1899) contemplates a desolate-looking cast of male characters whose eyes, like the men themselves, travel listlessly, ultimately looking as if they have nowhere to go. In Edward Hopper’s etching Night on the El Train (1918), on the other hand, a man and a woman turn inward toward each other at the end of the car, providing a focal point, a drama in light and dark produced for the benefit of an idle observer. They seem oblivious to the artist, whose point of view is that of someone coming down the aisle toward them. With his sharp nose and straight mouth, the man, who gazes downward rather than at his companion, bears a startling resemblance to the equally pensive, cigarette-smoking nighthawk in Hopper’s most famous painting. Here, the leaning woman’s white shirt-waist makes a heart-shape against the dark of the man’s suit and the train windows. But the echoing element, the man’s white hat, covers his lap as if to say “no dice”. For Hopper, urban nights and electric lights would seem to create a timeless, frozen zone of incommunication. His characters give us something to look at but seem to have nothing look toward themselves, not even each other.

Eternal Night

9That sense of timelessness is accentuated when we move from the El to the subway. Its underworld confuses the temporal and symbolic locations of the journey. Forever dark, the tunnel, platform, and train car are also forever lit. Is it midnight or midday? In “Subway” (1933) Charles Reznikoff writes of a denatured nature, a sunless subway sunshine:

  • 3  Charles Reznikoff, “Winter Sketches” (1933), section II “Subway” (Hine and Parisi 138).

our sky, cement;
the earth, cement;
our trees, steel;
instead of sunshine,
a light that has no twilight,
neither morning nor evening,
only noon3.

  • 4  “The Man-Moth” (1946) in Bishop 14-15.
  • 5  See Jennifer Toth, The Mole People, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1993. The accuracy of this book (...)

10For Elizabeth Bishop’s Man-Moth, however, those “pale subways of cement he calls home” are inseparable from an inescapable night. Here “Every night he must / be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams”. Literally and figuratively the nocturnal tracks structure his consciousness: “Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie / his rushing brain”. In fact, his weird specialness—the Man-Moth “always seats himself facing the wrong way”—turns the reader into a questing insect collector who must be ready to break the rules of visual non-engagement. “If you catch him”, Bishop says, “hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil, / an entire night itself”4. Like the fabled but occasionally real people who actually live in tunnels beneath Manhattan’s streets and stations, the Man-Moth testifies in a grotesque way to the amazing adaptability of the human condition, its ability to internalize an environment, to refuse sight, to become night itself5.

11The tension of repressed vision breaks out in various ways. For the modern incarnation of the epic poet, such as Hart Crane or Allan Ginsberg, the subway’s eternal night spawns wild dreams and symbolically freighted hallucinations. In Crane’s The Bridge (1930),the poem reaches its crisis in Part VII, "The Tunnel," as the poet descends from the vibrant city at midnight to return home by subway. While Joseph Stella had imagined a viewer who emerges up from the subway in his “White Way” panels of New York Interpreted (1922), Crane’s reader goes down into subway, away from Broadway “burning bright”. Crane’s subway ride corresponds structurally to the canvas-bottom predelle of New York Interpreted, the tunnels, passageways, and oncoming lights that root Stella’s fantastic city in Manhattan bedrock. As the luridly lit subway plunges through the earth, it enters a liminal space of dreams and nightmares, culminating with the sudden apparition of Edgar Allan Poe, whose eyes glow incessantly "like agate lanterns—on and on / Beneath the toothpaste and the dandruff ads”. In his underground subway wonderland, Crane replaces the Cheshire Cat’s smile with Poe’s fiery gaze. The demonic Man of the Crowd stares down the viewer, making it impossible to turn away. His horror swells to incorporate train, tunnel, track, until subway system and consciousness interpenetrate each other:

Whose head is swinging from the swollen strap?
Whose body smokes along the bitten rails,
Bursts from a smoldering bundle far behind
In back forks of the chasms of the brain,
Puffs from a riven stump far out behind
In interborough fissures of the mind […]?
(H. Crane 73-75)

12Amid images of hanging, lynching, burning, and mutilation, Crane likens the “interborough” intricacies of the psyche to the entrails of the dark city, the Interborough Rapid Transit system.

13Crane forecasts the apocalyptic vision of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), which attains its impact partially by grafting Crane’s mythic dimension onto the savage surrealism of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York (1940), chanting the story of “ angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” (Ginsberg 9). Like Crane, Ginsberg works up and down the symbolic register of Manhattan geography, exploring terrestrial, heavenly, and infernal levels of nocturnal experience. His heroes are hipsters “who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon”, and “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated”. They are adventurers who, in a drug-driven parody of On the Town, “chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo”. In Howl, with its “suicidal drama” of madness and Moloch in Manhattan, the subway phantasmagoria does indeed lead to “a hole in the ground”, death, but then past it into an hallucinatory afterlife.

Meet Miss Subways

  • 6  For a slide show of the actual posters and recent photos and biographies of former Miss Subways, s (...)

14But on—or below—earth, however, the subway salon mostly continues to mind its eyes while thinking about sex. For decades, from 1941-1976, riders lifted their gaze to a poster featuring a picture and brief biography of an attractive young woman. Big letters read, “Meet Miss Subways”6. The ads, whose title character changed frequently, promoted subway use by showcasing the personality and face of a charming fellow commuter. More approachable than a beauty-contest queen such as Miss Universe, who might be orbiting anywhere, Miss Subways was a New Yorker who gave many riders an object of local fantasy to rest their eyes upon. In fact, the plot of both the musical (1944) and film (1949) versions of On the Town turns on the sailor-heroes’ efforts to track down “Miss Turnstiles” in the flesh. The imperative verb “meet” suggested that the subway car was a refined environment, and that the train itself observed the social graces, performing necessary introductions. “Miss Subways” vanished in the 1970s, at a time of social upheaval, as if the formality were no longer needed. But during her reign most images of underground women flirted with or flaunted the possibility of meeting someone like her, some personification of urban romance, some mobile star in the train car’s cramped drama of wordless contact.

15In John Sloan’s Reading in the Subway (1926), for instance, the artist literally draws attention to a new feature of the cityscape that came into view in the 1920s with rising hemlines: a woman’s bare legs. The owner of the legs buries her nose in a book, apparently oblivious to the stare of the artist (whose shadowy face is reflected on the window behind her). He further signals his interest by placing his beauty beneath an ad for a soothing balm that reads, “Rub with Sloan’s Liniment”. Etching her lineaments, the artist massages the viewer’s desire along with his own.

16In the next decade, Fritz Eichenberg’s wood engraving The Subway (1934) offered an ironic follow-up to the fantasy. A comely woman stares boldly into the car, looking for love—but she is only an ad. “Invite Romance” read the letters by her head, but no one looks up to meet her gaze, especially not the miserable-looking couple who dejectedly hold hands in the corner below her. A second ad features smootching lovers who sell “Kissproof” lipstick, but it goes unremarked by the passengers, black and white, who mostly nod off, one cradling a sleeping child. Only a witch-profiled woman in a big bonnet seems alert, as she reads from a finely printed book, no doubt the Bible.

17Thomas Hart Benton managed to cram the fantasy, the irony, and the Bible-thumping moral framework, as well as the fractured visual drama of subway theater, all together in his mural City Activities with Subway I (1930), which he painted, appropriately enough, for the New School of Social Research. A sinuous study in body language, the work monumentalizes urban lust and yearning, the joys, perils, and nearly uncontrolled energies of the flesh. To organize the work, Benton employed a broken architectural molding that loosely separates the four main scenes of his mural, which nonetheless merge into another: burlesque dancers and frantically embracing park-bench lovers on the left side; praying, singing preachers and repenters at a revival meeting toward the center; belting boxers and bloodthirsty ringside spectators on the upper right; and vacant-eyed subway riders who diagonally spill out toward the viewer on the lower right. The broken molding is like the broken visual circuitry of the subway; it connects and divides at the same time. Benton builds his overall effect around thematic unity—everybody, every body, and every sign or letter (“God Love”, “Burlesque 50 Girls”, a Daily News headline about a “love nest”) speaks to the welcoming or renouncing of physical pleasure.

18But Benton makes his most telling points through echoing poses: the strap-hanging female subway rider who seems to be reading the ads raises her arm, spreads her legs, and thrusts out her buttocks only slightly more demurely than the shimmying burlesque dancer diagonally across the mural, and both are variations on the pose of the kneeling woman who raises her arms in divine supplication at the center of the work. The body is meant to be enjoyed, at least visually. The arms and torsos of all three women create a space into which Benton inserts a man’s head a short distance away, one that ambiguously could be staring into space—or looking straight up at her breasts. In the subway scene the man’s hand disappears behind or into the standing woman’s dress at crotch level. Both man and woman have the studiously detached demeanor that pretends utter disconnection even as the sexual steam mounts.

  • 7  See Greever and Bachelor 176-177.

19Still, sometimes the heat is simply disfiguring, the eyes drained of the power to compose a self, let alone trace the outline of another. With unusually frank language, the sometime dadaist poet Maxwell Bodenheim took on the literal and metaphoric steaminess of the subway early in the century, in “Summer Evening: New York Subway-Station”. Beneath the streets, “People savagely tamper / With each other’s bodies”, he wrote, under an electric light that is “taut and dull, / Like a nauseated suspense”. The hot, damp heap of passengers suggests “an orgy in a swamp”. A “sturdy girl” loses her demeanor and now looks like the collapsing, drunken victor of a wet T-shirt contest: “Her face renounces life. / Her white cotton waist is a wet skin on her breast: / Her black hat, crisp and delicate, / Does not understand her head”. Bodenheim’s sweaty riders seem too exhausted by the “perspiring violence” to care what they do—he calls the train cars that carry them away “soiled caskets”—so he concludes the poem by trying to set up some visual tension himself. He juxtaposes the wilting young woman to an old man, also wearing a ridiculous hat, who “stoops beside her / Sweat and wrinkles erupting / Upon the blunt remnants of his face”7. Milton’s Samson was “eyeless in Gaza”; these pale riders are featureless in Gotham. The summer subway offers neither revelation nor recreation, only a face-erasing transit towards death.

20Yet lustful looking remains the irrepressible basso continuo of the underground spectacle. While there’s no place for the voyeur to hide, he can still, like Bodenheim, sneak a look at “wet skin on her breast”. A poem from the same year as Ginsberg’s Howl, Paul Blackburn’s “The Once-Over” (1956), responds to the ride with something more like a groan—of pleasure:

The tanned blonde
             in the green print sack
in the center of the subway car
though there are seats
               has had it from
1 teen-age hood
1 lesbian
1 envious housewife
4 men over fifty
(& myself)

21The title’s reference to a look of sexual appraisal turns swiftly (“has had it from”) into a sort of visual gang rape. The male poet justifies his fantasy by asserting that he too “is being assaulted” so that “She has us and we her / all the way to downtown Brooklyn”.

22But does everyone have the right to look? Artists like Sloan, Eichenberg, and Benton casually mixed blacks and whites in their subway scenes, as if to make a point about the democratic nature of the experience, and how ordinary it was. Yet for those used to racial barriers, the subway was a shock. The subway can be a scene of instruction, providing eye-opening rites de passage for the uninitiated. In Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), the black narrator finds himself, on his first day in New York, jammed up against white women in the subway. Coming from the south, he is horrified by what the whites around him might think—and do—about his proximity. But they are completely unperturbed. Between black and white, as between man and woman, the essential role that all must play is one of disengaged nonchalance. It is a moment of sexual and racial revelation. To underline his fall into knowledge, Ellison has his hero glimpse “a blonde eating a red Delicious apple” before the train plunges down on the express ride to Harlem.

23The idea that the specular possession and its implied violence may be reciprocal, or deliberately staged by the female, while implicit in Blackburn or Ellison, gets full dramatic treatment in Leroi Jones’s Dutchman (1964)—an actual play set in the subway. Taking his cue from Ellison, Jones opens his play with the entrance into the car of a white woman, Lula, eating an apple. The play pushes the idea of temptation and fall to its limit, asking what might happen if players were to break the code and make more than fleeting visual contact, if they were to speak in words all that is usually said with the eyes. Lula sits down ostentatiously next to a black man who is reading, Clay:

LULA: Weren’t you staring at me through the window? At the last stop?
CLAY: Staring at you? What do you mean?
LULA: Don’t you know what staring means?
CLAY: I saw you through the window . . . if that’s what it means. I don’t know if I was staring. Seems to me you were staring through the window at me.
LULA: I was. But only after I’d turned around and saw you staring through that window down in the vicinity of my ass and legs.
CLAY: Really?
LULA: Really. I guess you were just taking those idle potshots. Nothing else to do. Run your mind over people’s flesh.

24During a long, hot, late-night ride in a nearly deserted car, Clay and Lula dally, desire, dupe, and threaten each other, using racial and sexual stereotypes and fears as their lures and weapons. At one point the black man pulls a knife, but it is the white woman who finally, gratuitously, kills him. Clay is of the earth, able to be molded, and the red haired, skimpily dressed Lula is a lulu, a whore of Babylon, an image of white America, who tempts and destroys. Looks could kill.

The Lingering Look

25Longing, lust, vulnerability, fear, paranoia, death: the subway has so much to offer anyone who cares to look hard at it or in it. Maybe this is why George Tooker’s painting The Subway (1950) has, with its pervasive, all-purpose anxiety, become the classic image of the New York underground. It is dread incarnate. The nearly panicked woman at the center of the picture, eyes wide with distress, is approached on either side from behind by two creepy-looking men with the same face. On her right a trio of similar men peer out from phone booths. And on her left approaching women seem to be sliced in pieces by the intermeshing bars of an exit. The turned backs and jail-like bars in the rest of the scene underline the sense of entrapment and helplessness. The claustrophobic repetitions of sinister spaces, faces, and clothing intensify the feeling that urban Hell is indeed other people, and than the worst nightmare is their horrifying sameness. It’s the eyes that have it. While subway violence is real enough, Tooker shows that what’s most powerful in subway art is the suspense encoded in the lingering look. Simply being looked at might make you die of fright.

  • 8  Walker Evans, Many Are Called (1966); republished (Yale University Press, 2004) with a foreword by (...)
  • 9  Bruce Davidson, following in some of Evan’s footsteps, made an extended study of subway life in th (...)

26And if visibility is vulnerability we are all in danger. Having said that voyeurs have nowhere to hide on the train, I must conclude by admitting how limited that truth is: consider the series of over 600 photographs that Walker Evans took from February 1938 to January 1941, secretly snapping unwitting people who sat down opposite him in the subway. Using fast film and a 35mm Contax camera, he shot through an opening in his coat, like a gangster in a movie, activating the shutter with a cable that passed inside his sleeve to his hand. Having entered dubious moral territory and having no permission from any of his subjects, he waited until 1966 to publish a book of eighty-nine carefully chosen images, Many Are Called8.Such was the eagerness to peek at the public that an exhibition of forty of the snapshots was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art that same year9. In Evan’s underground, people fidget, embrace, and unconsciously do potentially embarrassing things. Mostly, however, they are just themselves, a parade of unexceptionable human specimens morbidly fascinating because their fatigue, sorrow, and mortality are so utterly, unguardedly evident. They are in public, and know they can be seen, but whatever masks they usually wear seem to have dissolved, as in Bodenheim’s steambath, leaving indelibly distinctive skulls behind. Drained of life, they have no idea that they are being fixed, each a memento mori, on film forever. Collectively, their pallid faces look like a collection of mugshots taken upon their being arrested for daring to descend to Avernus; they are booked for entrance to Hades.

  • 10  Evan’s friend James Agee insisted on the subway’s universality; the people “are member of every ra (...)
  • 11  Evans 15 (Foreword by Sante).
  • 12  Evans 203 (Afterword by Rosenheim).
  • 13  The photographs are not titled, but are referred to by plate number, date of shot, and Museum of M (...)

27Evan’s biblical title for the project, “many are called”, invokes the conclusion to the passage from Matthew 22: “but few are chosen”, a sentiment reinforced by the selectivity of the photographer. Out of thousands or even millions of potential subjects, Evans grants only a few dozen the right to enter into photographic immortality. His approach to each “sitter” may have been governed by the laws of chance, but the meticulous framing of each individual or group portrayed raises the question, is this art or life? Does the photo document accident or intention? Evans later remarked that the pictures were “my idea of what a portrait ought to be: anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind”10. Yet each, Agee continued, “is an individual existence, as matchless as a thumbprint or a snowflake”11. Evans even published six of the photos in March 1962 in Harper’s Bazaar, with a text titled “The Unposed Portrait”. His “portraits”, he wrote, “were caught by a hidden camera, in the hands of a penitent spy and an apologetic voyeur”12. But the notion of a portrait is at odds with anonymity and voyeurism, provoking a related query: are these people aware of the camera or not? Some certainly seem to be, especially the couple who give identical quizzical looks, or the tough-looking man with his hand on his chin, who seems to be contemplating the camera and wondering how many fingers to put in his knuckle sandwich13.

28But most of Evans’s subjects seem unaware of the camera, although they would probably not have been surprised to learn about it. Photographing the vibrant, dreary, dramatic, depressing, bizarre, and dangerous parade of underground humanity has been a key part of subway life since the beginning. Even in the wake of 9/11, when American civil liberties were falling fast, authorities were unable to enact a proposed ban on subway photography. Twice, in 2004 and again in 2007, ardent protests from the public and civil rights groups caused the restrictive proposals to be scrapped, and a statute was added explicitly permitting subway photography, as long as cumbersome extra equipment was not involved.

  • 14  See Evans 13 (Foreword by Sante).
  • 15  See Plates 74 and 27 respectively: January 26, 1941, 1994.253.617.4 and January 27, 1941, 1994.253 (...)

29Evans’s genius was to realize that he needed practically nothing to do his job. Although a good portrait often demands a fancy studio setting, in the subway Evans found a ready-made, democratic, one-size-fits-all studio, with controlled lighting, dark backgrounds, and plenty of rectilinear framing devices (windows, doors, wooden paneling)14. Not to mention an endless supply of life-lined faces who offered an urban counterpart to the care-worn figures he had documented in the rural south. Evans could vary his photos by adjusting the angle of the shot up or down or sideways, and by cropping to center or de-center his subjects in space, sometimes allowing the heads and personalities to dominate, sometimes letting the context shrink the presence of the human subject. He could also let the accidents of alienation or conversation produce parallel profiles, or the reverse, doubled profiles engaged in animated interaction15.

  • 16  Evans 197 (Afterword by Rosenheim).
  • 17  Evans 12 (Foreword by Sante).

30In a famous bit of advice, Evans remarked, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long”16. Turning the camera’s stare into a method of preserving the fleeting city instant, Evans projected the literally moving situation of subway travel into a new format through which to explore the human condition via the emotional depths of its facial surfaces. As Luc Sante notes, “In photographing subway riders without their knowledge, Evans was breaking the [don’t stare] taboo twice over, since he was not only staring but also communicating the stare to others across time and space”17.

  • 18  The photos mentioned in this paragraph are catalogued as follows: Plate 55, January 25, 1941, 1994 (...)

31What kind of artistic rewards did Evans reap for his efforts? In The Painter of Modern Life Charles Baudelaire suggested that beauty was composed of both time-bound and eternal elements, and in Evans’s photographs we find a combination of incidental and underlying elements that generate unforgettable images. On the incidental level, we can watch Evans snap the moment when his subjects enter into a Weegee-esque relationship to the official or commercial texts around them, or share a Keith Haring-like joke with the advertisements that they play off of. For the twenty-first-century New Yorker, one of the most striking things about these photographs is the universality of hats, a fact of sartorial self-expression whose history now seems as distant as Dutch New Amsterdam. There is the photo of the man whose hat and scarf almost precisely match those of a sneezing man in a Department of Health poster (plate 55), while the poster’s injunction to “use your handkerchief” draws our eyes to his beautifully folded breast-pocket adornment. Another man’s fedora and expression echo the hat and pose of a fashion model seen in a newspaper held up by the passenger next to him (plate 3). In the background glass behind an unshaven man with hat and scarf we see the capital letters “ROOK”—possibly from a sign for “Brooklyn”, but strongly suggesting “Crook” (plate 15). A forlorn-looking sailor gazes sadly away from a glamorous model selling Chesterfield cigarettes, “made for smokers like yourself” (plate 83). His white hat ironically echoes the white shape of the Chesterfield pack in the ad. And then there is the verbal/visual tug of war between strong faces and bold letters indicating the subway train’s destination points: in the very first plate, as if to announce the transit theme, a pretty blonde woman sits beneath even more striking letters: “7th AVE. LOCAL / SOUTH FERRY / 145th ST. LENOX AVE”. The places seem a sort of cartoon bubble signifying her thoughts, even as the stenciled letters themselves recall shipping directions on a wooden crate. We are mere human goods, they imply, being delivered across town as part of the journey of life18.

  • 19  Evans 198 (Afterword by Rosenheim).
  • 20  Evans 16 (Foreword by Sante).
  • 21  Catalogue information: Plate 62, May 27, 1938, 1994.253.608.2; plate 19 January 26, 1941, 1994.253 (...)

32But Evans wanted more than local amusement or cosmic irony. In particular he cared about capturing the inner truth, the naked soul of the person seated across from him. Just as Jacob Riis had discovered that he could catch the reality of the slum “off its guard” at 3 A.M., “when the veneering is off” (Riis 235), so Evans found that people relaxed and let their unvarnished selves appear as they rumbled beneath the city. According to Evans, “the guard is down and the mask is off, even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there is a mirror), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway”19. James Agee, with whom Evans collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, said something similar in the original introduction that he wrote for the photographs in 1940: “only in certain waking moments of suspension, of quiet, of solitude, are these guards down”20. In the midst of New York’s mythic bustle, Evans located the “naked repose” of souls hurtling through underground tunnels. We see the two gaunt men who seem to have stepped out of one of Riis’s slum buildings (plate 62), or the little, drooping-mustached man, a touching combination of sartorially spiffy and psychologically defeated (plate 19), or the dead-tired mother and child slumped beneath a poster for a concert at Carnegie Hall (plate 39)21. They and their companions on this visual train-ride recount their stories silently. Their faces give themselves away as if they were Guido da Montefeltro, who tells Dante in the Inferno that he will speak freely because he has no fear that anyone below can return to the upper world with his confession.

  • 22  Plate 89, February 25, 1938, 1994.253.510.2.

33But Evans saw himself as a sort of Dante bringing back the news from the Underworld, and in the very last image in the book, plate 89, he snaps a picture that suggests the larger dimensions of his journey22. It shows an accordion player making his way down the length of the subway car. For the first time in the series we see the surrounding crowd lining the benches, a captive audience, reading newspapers and conversing, the crowd that until this moment has been suppressed, erased, cordoned off from the picture space so that individuals can, one by one and two by two, have their photographic moment of self-revelation. If we count the hats, we can locate at least twenty people who turn Evans’s lonely studio into a warm, almost cozy “salon” of the sort that Crane observed fifty years before, complete with musical entertainment. But the accordion player has his eyes closed; that fact, and the tin cup hanging from his instrument, suggest that he is blind. He is a final emblem of how scopic power works—we, like the camera, can look, but he cannot look back.

34In Evans’s photographs, the mobile, seemingly egalitarian theater of Crane’s salon-car where all can see and be seen breaks down as the repressed longing to look finds a new path to take. The voyeuristic act of seeing without being seen bestows a desperately sought, life-preserving visual advantage on the spectator. It is a Weegee-esque drama that might be subtitled “The Camera and the Corpse”. Only the living can look. In the subway the close proximity of self and other builds a visual tension that must be released, as the active camera-eye seeks to triumph over the fatigued and defenseless faces opposite. Anyone needing an outlet more rewarding than glancing at the ads that line the un-haloed space above the passenger’s heads will have to succumb to the temptations offered across the aisle. Concealed cameras and artist’s eyes furtively trace a visual path of least resistance, reinstating the ocular network of unequal power. All the underworld’s a stage.

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BISHOP, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983.

CRANE, Hart. The Bridge, New York: Liveright, 1930.

CRANE, Stephen. The New York City Sketches of Stephen Crane. STALLMAN, R. W. and E. R. HAGEMANN eds., New York: NYU Press, 1966.

EVANS, Walker. Many Are Called (1966), New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

GINSBERG, Alan. Howl, San Francisco: City Lights, 1956.

GREEVER, Garland and Joseph M. BACHELOR, eds. The Soul of the City: An Urban Anthology, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1923.

HINE, Daryl and Joseph PARISI, eds. The Poetry Anthology 1912-1977, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

POUND, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, New York: New Directions, 1968.

RIIS, Jacob A. The Making of an American, New York: Macmillan, 1901.

SHARPE, William C. New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting and Photography, 1850-1950, New York: Princeton University Press, 2000

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1  Stephen Crane, “In the Broadway Cars”, undated urban sketch (S. Crane188).

2  S. Crane, “In the Broadway Cars”, 188.

3  Charles Reznikoff, “Winter Sketches” (1933), section II “Subway” (Hine and Parisi 138).

4  “The Man-Moth” (1946) in Bishop 14-15.

5  See Jennifer Toth, The Mole People, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1993. The accuracy of this book has been challenged.

6  For a slide show of the actual posters and recent photos and biographies of former Miss Subways, see

7  See Greever and Bachelor 176-177.

8  Walker Evans, Many Are Called (1966); republished (Yale University Press, 2004) with a foreword by Luc Sante and an afterward by Jeff L. Rosenheim).

9  Bruce Davidson, following in some of Evan’s footsteps, made an extended study of subway life in the early 1980s, also leading to a book, Subway (1980) and a museum exhibition. But where Evans was sneaky, Davidson was direct, working in color with many lenses and a flash, scrupulously obtaining the consent of his subjects before shooting.

10  Evan’s friend James Agee insisted on the subway’s universality; the people “are member of every race and nation” who are “of all ages, of all temperaments, of all classes”.

11  Evans 15 (Foreword by Sante).

12  Evans 203 (Afterword by Rosenheim).

13  The photographs are not titled, but are referred to by plate number, date of shot, and Museum of Modern Art Accession number. The couple is plate 60, February 25, 1938, 1994.253.514.1, while the man is plate 66, January 25, 1941, 1994.253.613.2. The couple, and a few other well-know shots can be found online at For more photos, see also and the National Public Radio site and story about Evans:

14  See Evans 13 (Foreword by Sante).

15  See Plates 74 and 27 respectively: January 26, 1941, 1994.253.617.4 and January 27, 1941, 1994.253.626.1.

16  Evans 197 (Afterword by Rosenheim).

17  Evans 12 (Foreword by Sante).

18  The photos mentioned in this paragraph are catalogued as follows: Plate 55, January 25, 1941, 1994.253.603.2; plate 3, January 17, 1941, 1994.253.579.1; plate 15, January 17, 1941, 1994.253.574.3; plate 83, January 25, 1941, 1994.253.604.3; plate 1, February 15, 1938, 1994.253.499.1.

19  Evans 198 (Afterword by Rosenheim).

20  Evans 16 (Foreword by Sante).

21  Catalogue information: Plate 62, May 27, 1938, 1994.253.608.2; plate 19 January 26, 1941, 1994.253.618.4; plate 39, January 25, 1941, 1994.253.612.4.

22  Plate 89, February 25, 1938, 1994.253.510.2.

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William Chapman SHARPE, « From El to Hell: On Stage in the Urban Underworld »e-Rea [En ligne], 7.2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2010, consulté le 12 avril 2024. URL :

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William Chapman SHARPE

Barnard College, Columbia University

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