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Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Subway Portrait

Walker Evans
(American, 1903–1975)

1941. Gelatin silver print, 6 15/16 x 7 1/2" (17.6 x 19.1 cm)

In 1938 Walker Evans went underground to photograph passengers on the New York City Subway. Interested in capturing the everyday routines of anonymous people, Evans wanted to catch his subjects unaware. “The guard is down and the mask is off,” he wrote, “even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”1 Between 1938 and 1941, using a hidden camera, Evans photographed his subjects in these unguarded moments. Evans solicited the company of his friend, the photographer Helen Levitt, in the belief that his activities would be less noticeable if someone accompanied him.

In order to create his clandestine photographs, he orchestrated a way of taking photographs “undercover.” He painted the shiny chrome of his camera black and hid it under his coat so that the camera lens surreptitiously peeked out between two buttons. Despite the public setting of the subway, Evans managed to capture people lost in their own thoughts and moods, displaying a range of human emotions. With these black-and-white photographs, Evans managed to pull off a complicated feat: creating truly unposed portraits.

Walker Evans, quoted in Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 170–71.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

The context or environment in which a situation occurs.

A representation of a particular individual.

A state of mind or emotion, a pervading impression.