National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Subway Portrait Walker Evans (artist)
American, 1903 - 1975
Subway Portrait, 1938
gelatin silver print
sheet (trimmed to image): 12.3 x 19.2 cm (4 13/16 x 7 9/16 in.) mount: 28.1 x 21.6 cm (11 1/16 x 8 1/2 in.)
Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art
1990.114.13
Not on View
From the Tour: Modern Portraits in Photography
Object 9 of 13

Although he resisted the term "art photographer" throughout his life, Walker Evans was instrumental in establishing photography as an artistic profession in the United States. Ten years after making his first serious photographs, Evans had published three books with noted writers and had as many one-person shows at the Museum of Modern Art. The last of these, American Photographs (1938), established a lineage, characterized by the ironic documentation of this country's sights and mores, that was later furthered by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and other photographers in the postwar decades.

For his "subway portraits," which Evans began to make immediately after the appearance of American Photographs yet first published only fifteen years later, the photographer remained as anonymous as his subjects. Furtively riding New York City subway cars, Evans hid all but the lens of his camera and snapped his pictures without raising the camera to his eyes. By shooting "blind," he sacrificed the ability to frame his compositions exactly (although he did crop many negatives in printing) but gained thoroughly candid views in return. Portraiture merges here with voyeurism and surveillance. Interestingly, the disjuncture between artist and subject is matched by the sitters' own alienation from one another. Even family members traveling together connect only tangentially, as we see in this photograph. Snatches of conversation travel across their intended recipients, to a rhythm suggested by the reflections of bouncing lights. The lack of eye contact, meanwhile, is eloquently summed up in a wall of newsprint at right.

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