[Subway Passengers, New York City]

Artist: Walker Evans (American, St. Louis, Missouri 1903–1975 New Haven, Connecticut)

Date: 1938

Medium: Gelatin silver print

Dimensions: 12.2 x 15.0 cm (4 13/16 x 5 15/16 in.)

Classification: Photographs

Credit Line: Gift of Arnold H. Crane, 1971

Accession Number: 1971.646.18

Rights and Reproduction: © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


During the winter months between 1938 and 1941, Evans strapped a camera to his midsection, cloaked it with his overcoat, and snaked a cable release down his suit sleeve to photograph New York City subway passengers unawares. In his book of these unposed portraits, Many Are Called (1966), the artist referred to his quarry as "the ladies and gentlemen of the jury." What he was after stylistically, though, was more in keeping with the criminal mug shot: frontal and without emotional inflection. In this photograph, the tabloid headline "PAL TELLS HOW GUNGIRL KILLED" across the newspaper nods to Evans’s interest in vernacular source material.
Inspired by the incisive realism of Honoré Daumier's Third-Class Carriage (29.100.129), Walker Evans sought to avoid the vanity, sentimentality, and artifice of conventional studio portraiture. The subway series, he later said, was "my idea of what a portrait ought to be: anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind."