In the late 1930s Evans began bringing a hidden camera into the New York subway. The lens of his camera peeking through the buttons of his coat, he would photograph his fellow passengers on what he called the “swaying sweatbox.” Evans’s fellow photographers Rudy Burckhardt and Dan Weiner also regularly captured images of New York subway commuters, many of whom were working-class people. These photos helped bolster the mission of the Photo League, a cooperative (of which Burckhardt and Weiner were members) that formed in 1936 with a commitment to progressive social reform.
Gallery label from 2022
Have you ever taken someone’s photo without them noticing? Evans secretly photographed people while riding the New York City subway with his friend and fellow photographer Helen Levitt. The photos capture people reading or lost in their own thoughts. What do you notice about how these riders look? Imagine what they might be thinking.
Gallery label from For Kids, 2022
As photographic technology advanced—cameras became more portable and film more sensitive to light, requiring shorter exposure times—people were no longer required to pose for pictures. In an effort to capture candid images of people in public places, Walker Evans affixed a right angle viewfinder to his camera to make it look as if he was pointing it off to the side rather than directly at his subjects. For his Subway Portraits, he went even further and concealed his camera by painting its shiny chrome parts black and hiding it under his topcoat, with only its lens peeking out between two buttons. He rigged its shutter to a cable release, whose chord snaked down his sleeve and into the palm of his hand, which he kept buried in his pocket. As a result, these portraits show people in unguarded moments.
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016