« On a chilly winter afternoon in 1938, Walker Evans and Helen Levitt climbed down the slippery iron steps to the subway station at Ninety-Sixth Street and Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks away from Evans’s apartment. They paid their nickel fares and waited together on the platform, eyeing fellow passengers with a peculiar intensity. Unlike the half-million or so other New Yorkers who rode the subway that day, Evans and Levitt had no particular destination in mind ; but the joyride they were on had a specific – and secret – agenda. With Levitt as a ready companion, Evans was touring Manhattan’s underground tunnels to photograph the faces of his fellow passengers with a hidden camera. True to the notion of the photographer who silently stalks his prey, senses attuned to the subtly shifting configurations around him, Evans described his project down in the « swaying sweatbox » of the subway as a « hunt… for true portraiture ».
He was well equipped for this unique underground excursion. The shiny chrome parts of his 35-millimeter Contax had been painted flat black, and the camera hung around his neck with its lens peeking out between two buttons of his topcoat. The shutter was rigged to a cable release, a slender cord snaking down his sleeve and into the palm of his right hand. « No viewing », he later explained in an interview. « Sort of done from the belly ». Evans boarded the downtown local, stood in the center of the aisle, and quickly fired a couple of oblique shots down the length of the car, capturing a row of seated passengers poring over the daily papers. Next he enlisted Levitt as test subject for a picture in his preferred format : a straight-on, frontal view of whoever was seated on the bench directly across from him . Staring back nonchalantly from across the aisle, Levitt was an elegant accomplice, with a fur stole wrapped around her shoulders and her dark wool hat perched at a rakish angle.
Photographing in the dim, artificial light of the subway – forgoing a flash, with its telltale flare – posed a tricky technical challenge. Even using one of the fastest films available at the time (Agfa Ultraspeed Panchromatic), Evans had to open the aperture wide and slow the shutter speed down to a fiftieth of a second, shooting when the train paused in the station to avoid the jostling movement of the car. With the camera buried inside his topcoat he was essentially « shooting blind », guessing at the precise coposition of his pictures as he took them. The improvisation required a myriad of minute physical adjustments. Scanning the sequences of negatives in the Walker Evans Archive we can follow his slight shifts of the camera, up and down and left and right, to capture different groupings of passengers and different ratios of torso ti head to overhead subway signage. Evans was characteristically reticent about the details of his technique, but we can imagine him fidgeting in his seat with his hands buried in the deep pockets of his overcoat, arching his back and swiveling his body left and right as he repositioned the frame between shots. (….) »
By Mia Fineman, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art