Evans, Davidson and other photographers have made the subway their subject, capturing the fleeting, jumbled, anonymous parade of characters in the underground worlds that parallel the great metropolises of New York and London. My project, shot in these two cities between 2007 and 2012, has been to invert the photographer’s role from passive observer to fellow traveller and antagonist. Rather than hiding my camera, I come out shooting, stimulating an authentic response—whether amusement, surprise or hostility —to the act of being captured. Often shooting at very close range, I defy the unspoken convention of underground life that, despite our physical closeness, we ignore each other’s presence. I use the staccato “natural” light of the subway itself to emphasise the bright color and graffiti aesthetic of contemporary self-fashioning. Individually these are images of random encounters, eliciting individual gestures, emotions and behavior. As a body of work I have tried to push subway photography from passive documentation into the realm of provocation, dialogue and engagement –making its subject as much as recording it.
John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
Subways are center stage in the Breughelian fairground of urban modernity, places where the fulfillment of daily needs locks inexorably into public performance.
Amid the constantly shifting choreography of the city, here is where life comes to a stop for minutes at a time as everyone waits for a train or rides a car to the next stop. In this in-between world, destinations succumb to immediacy and polite privacy accommodates sidelong glances at others. Strangers brought together by fluke timing and a shared need to get somewhere offer up a Fellini-like circus of poses, expressions, and interactions—an engagement that constantly mutates as people enter and leave the scene.
Kathy Suder is not a mere observer of this show. She does not hide her camera behind a buttonhole of her coat as Walker Evans did in the 1930s. Nor does she shirk back into the shadows to safely record the scene from a distance. The people she photographs, like a Hassidic Jew half-reading his newspaper or a young blonde woman coolly accepting the embrace of a male friend, may not want to be photographed, but they are forced to acknowledge her. It is dangerous
work; at times Suder’s photographs are split-second recognitions of half-realized intuition. But more often she studies and even follows her subjects, getting into their faces, asking permission only after the fact, if at all.
Where Bruce Davidson effectively portrayed the subway as a dark symbol of the poverty and societal dysfunctions inscribing New York in the early 1980s, Suder projects the contemporary post-millennial subway as a far brighter place on a more global stage. In her world, ubiquitous graffiti and shadow have been replaced by colorful poster advertisements that amuse and entertain through momentary, happenstance juxtapositions with passersby. Rather than critique or make fun of her sitters, whether they be punk teens trumpeting pink and blue hair or a father absentmindedly stroking the scalp of his son, Suder relishes in their humanity.
She too is a member of the troupe, engaging the scene as much as the young man who she photographs subsumed by the music of his ukulele.
Subways are peculiar forms of conveyance. In airplanes, buses, and trains we face the backs of other chairs and look out windows to the passing street, land, and sky. But on subways we look inward and at each other, engaging with the plethora of humanity that surrounds and shifts before us. Suder conveys this interaction with expertise, delivering a mix of classes, races, ages, and cultures as the trains pass from one neighborhood to the next. Although her images convey the constant flow of people across tight spaces, there is plenty of time to take in the cast of characters. Suder’s world is not the compacted crush of rush hour, but a scene defined by interfolded layers, reflections, and surprising juxtapositions, a place animated by swift glances, gentle interactions, acerbic stares, and occasionally, outright poses. Her subway is a community, even when it exudes feigned solitude.
Suder’s photographs provide a gold mine of resources for actors, doctors, and psychologists. The simple act of stopping for extended moments quiets the body, inducing a release of the mask that frames controlled engagement. The images offer kernels of cultural mores for anthropologists to decipher—clothing styles, bodily displays, and the blending of public and private space. Surprisingly, I often cannot tell whether Suder is showing me London, New York, or Tokyo, save for through the colors and designs of the cars and the subway architecture. Location is not really the point though. Nor is destination. Suder’s photographs reveal the transition from childhood curiosity and youthful acceptance verging into exuberance to wariness and exhaustion, but even this tale is less important than the immediacy of community. This is Joyce’s world of life lived with fullness through good and bad alike—where love, friendship, and solitude play out in constant entertaining charge.
With an expert eye and attentive sensitivity, Suder has invited us into her odyssey of seeing and being seen, of lives lived singularly and those lived amidst tight
communities of friends and family, all surrounded by strangers, as everyone rides across the city to their myriad of destinations. Quick, we have arrived at our stop. Time to get off.
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