Why Photograph the Subway?

Why Photograph the Subway?

Many years ago, returning from a party, I found myself, sitting in an empty subway car. The lights from the stations gleamed on the hard, plastic graffiti-proof bench opposite me. I took a small camera from my pocket and took a black and white picture of this empty grayness, and streaks of light. This sterile stretch of plastic spoke to me. Somewhere, probably in Japan, a place to seat New Yorkers had been poured into a mold. The old seats of my youth, the seats with the quiltwork of tan and yellow plastic were long gone. The new subway seats were for a new age. And they were ugly. The old seats were made when people listened to Frank Sinatra. The new seats were made to resist tagging, and hip-hop. Perhaps the same manufacturer also made delightful prison furniture. I am not a nostalgic person. But I am sensitive to forms and shapes that alienate.

There are no longer seats on the New York subway. There are long slippery planks of plastic with indentations for your behind. A big fellow may take up two indentations. There is no chance to sit facing forward, or sitting backwards. We sit sideways, facing each other. We move through this river of the city, in a dark, gleaming place where things happen for no apparent reason. Like a dream, we hurdle through from one place to another. Stopping in between stations for Kafkaesque reasons that are beyond comprehension. Announcements are made which can not be understood. Trains are taken out of service in what seems like a random way. Unseen conductors threaten to ‘Take this train out of service’ if we don’t behave to their satisfaction. We are no longer called ‘passenger’s’ — we are called ‘customers’ in the politically correct inexactness of the times.

The subway is the place where denizens of the great metropolis are now forced to face each other. The wealthy, and the poor rub more than elbows here. Often the pot in which we are all supposed to be melting cracks and boils over.

Bill Cosby called it right with his routine, “There’s a Nut in Every Car”. I’m always amazed at how much drama happens in these confined, crowded cars. I’ve seen altercations that have resulted in pushing matches. I’ve seen epileptic fits, and harangues that lasted for twenty station stops.

Don’t make eye contact unless you are looking for trouble. Read a paper. Close your eyes and pretend to sleep. Stare at the advertisements. The subway is the place where we are physically closest to our fellow New Yorkers, and at the same time alienated by our urban wariness.

I believe that phobia and fear of the subway, is as great as fear of flying. Watch the eyes of passengers when a humid, congested car is stopped between stations, and the lights go out. No announcement. No room to move. No idea of why the train has stopped. All ears listening for that first sound of air brakes being released which is a sign that the train is going to move again.

It’s 8am on the number six train. That empty plank of plastic is filled to capacity with New Yorkers on their way to work. I stand in the corner of the car with a camera hanging around my neck, hoping to capture some telling moment in this menage. How many years have I been riding this train to work? Five? Seven? Have I ever really been able to capture the feeling? I look like a tourist. Who else but a tourist would have a camera hanging around his neck? But still, I can feel suspicion. Who is this guy? Is he really a tourist. He has his finger on the shutter. I pull out a small subway map and look at it as if I’m lost. Maybe I am lost. Okay. He really must be a tourist. And in fact, I am a kind of tourist. I just happen to be taking the same tour every day at the same time with the same selection of riders.

A young women sitting near me takes out her compact and powder. This is one of the moments that I hope for. Preparing the face to meet the faces — while this mass of hurtling plastic and steel jostles us towards a common destination. I know that the train is shaking too much for me to take a picture while its moving. Hopefully, she will still be doing her face by the time we get to the next stop. I also need to time the click of the shutter with the sound of the conductor telling us where we are. My thumb makes its way to the shutter release. I rethink exactly what I’m going to do. The train is going to stop. Just as the doors are opening, the conductor is going to say something. I’m directly beneath the tinny speaker, so it should be okay. The camera that I’m using will autofocus on the closest thing in the frame. As the train pulls into the station, she puts her compact away and darts off. Well, another shot missed. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have more luck. But what’s this? A woman holding a roll of toilet paper gets on. Weird. She sits down across from me. She has a brilliant smile, and is wearing a very white blouse. I don’t think the toilet paper is going to show up well against that blouse… and so it goes.

By the end of my trip, the train has emptied out. There are those gleaming stretches of molded plastic. There are the graffiti-proof windows, which have been cut and scratched by taggers. It’s time for me to get off and continue on to my real job. No one pays money to be reminded of what is usually the most unpleasant part of their day. And I don’t blame them. Not one bit. When I come home from work, I want to look at pictures of the ocean. Instead of the streak of a halogen light on a gray plastic foam injected plank, I want the gleam of a dying sunset rippled on the expanse of water which promises a lovely journey to exotic climes. Still, I know that I’ll have my camera around my neck the next day, hoping to catch something of this daily journey.

Photographic Techniques

In any kind of street photography, there is a decision that you must make up front — Do you care if people know you are photographing them, or are you going to be surreptitious? I’ve seen street photographers who work with flash attachments. Who walk right up to someone and take their picture with the flash firing off. In my view, this action often changes the expression of the person being photographed, and even if it doesn’t, it is too intrusive. On the other side of the spectrum, there are photographers who work as spies. They have the camera hidden somewhere, and photograph in complete secrecy. I believe that Walker Evans did some of his subway work this way.

The technique that I’m most comfortable with is somewhere in between. Generally, the camera is hanging from my neck. My right hand rests on the shutter, my thumb on the shutter is partially obscured by the wide strap of my camera bag, ready to shoot from about chest high if necessary. Since the camera is also out in the open, I can also raise it to my eye and shoot. Most people have asked me I’ve ever had any trouble shooting on the subway. The answer is ‘no’. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I think that being careful helps.

Lighting inside a subway car generally requires you to shoot at about f2.8, somewhere between 1/15 and 1/30 of a second with ASA 400 film. Since there is a lot of movement, and since you are in close quarters, you usually want to use a fairly wide angle lens, such as a 21mm or a 28mm. The wider the lens, the easier it it to get a crisp, non-blurred image. This is simply based on the reciprocal rule of shooting with a shutter speed that is roughly equal to or greater than the length of your lens.

In other words, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 or a second. If you are shooting with a 21mm lens, and there is no mirror shake to worry about, you can easily get by with 1/15 of a second, or less. This is one of the reasons that shooting with medium format is so difficult. The normal lens is longer, and most wide angle lenses only open to f4. Even so, I have gotten some good results with a Rolliflex placed on my lap.

Another consideration with an autofocus camera like the Contax G2, (which is what I’ve been using for the past few years), is the movement of the lens when it is being focused. A shorter lens will focus quicker and be less noticeable than a longer lens.

Where you position yourself in the car is critical.. Sitting down on the #6 train is generally the worst thing you can do. If you sit, you’re stuck. Unless the person on the opposite you is your intended subject, you may be trapped in a useless position for the whole trip. Expect people to get on and stand between you and the person opposite you which further minimizes your chance of getting something interesting.

The best position, if you can get it, is standing up against the doors, opposite of the doors that open. This gives you the greatest chance of finding something worth shooting. It is very easy to photograph people as they are getting on, at that exact instant that the doors are opening. The noise of the doors opening covers the sound of the shutter being tripped, and people just getting on have not yet noticed you, giving you the element of surprise.

Pray for a noisy car, with lots of brakes squeaking, and an overzealous, talkative conductor with a speaker that’s turned up too high. Obviously, you are looking for all the help you can get in covering up the noise of the shutter.

Don’t get onto a train, with your camera in your bag, and then decide to take it out and shoot. This will draw too much attention. Know ahead of time, that you might be shooting, and walk on with the camera already around your neck. This gives passengers time to get used to the idea. After a few minutes, they will generally ignore you. If you really want to achieve invisibility, carry a tourists map with you in your other hand and glance at it continuously as if you are lost. This will ensure that nobody will pay you the slightest attention. I’ve found this to be a good technique for shooting on the street as well.

As far as focusing goes, there are two basic methods:
1) Assuming that you are using an autofocus camera, and that you are going to be in one position, preset the camera to the correct distance, and leave it there. For example, suppose that you are standing opposite the doors that open, and using the G2. Your camera should be parallel to the door, and you press the shutter halfway and look at the reading on the top of the camera. Then with your thumb, on the back of the camera, switch it to manual mode, and set it to the correct distance. Now, you are ready to shoot in that direction. If you’ve been traveling the trains a lot, you may already know that this distance is 3.5 meters, and have the camera preset to this distance. What’s nice about the G2, is that you can easily set it back to Single Mode Focus, with the thumb on the back of the camera in case there is something else you want to shoot.

2) Simply keep the camera in Single Focus Mode. Let it determine the correct focus, each time you press the shutter.

With a 21mm lens, even wide open at F2.8, focus is generally not going to be the problem. The main problem is movement, either of the person, or the car. The subway creates a lot of vibration. Most of the time you are going to want to shoot when the car has stopped. The problem there is that you’ve just lost your cover, the noise of the train itself. The best thing you can hope for is a noisy announcement, or another train going by as the doors are opened.

Oh yes. Sometimes, something happens, which everyone recognizes as unusual and worthy of photographing. Usually this is a lighthearted moment of some kind. In this case, you can simply raise the camera to your eye, and photograph, but these instances are rare.

The Konica Hexar (especially the early model with silent mode) is one of the best cameras to use. It is small. Looks like a tourist point and shoot, and is absolutely quiet. The only problem is that it doesn’t have interchangeable lenses.

The Leica is also quiet. Has interchangeable lenses. But it is noticeable when you advance to the next frame.

The Contax G2 is probably the best, but is noisier than the Leica and the Hexar.


All of this being said, luck plays a big part. I have had days on end when nothing happens worth shooting. And other days where several things happen on the same subway ride. Sometimes, although you are nervous, or hesitant about shooting, you must simply pluck up your courage and shoot anyway.


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My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.