Ourit Ben-Haim enjoys reading on the subway. Other people reading. Over the past few months the New York City photographer has been hopping from train to train in search of people lost in a book, snapping a candid shot, and posting the picture to her Tumblr blog. She calls her work the Underground New York Public Library.
The idea began back in 2008 when Ben-Haim spontaneously snapped a candid shot of someone reading with her mobile phone. The self-described "street photographer" returned to the tunnels for more, this time wielding her trusty Canon 5D Mark II, and eventually developed the concept into a regular endeavor.
"I love the M.T.A. — for a street photographer it's one of the best places," says Ben-Haim. "Where else do you have a complete mixture and they're people sitting still together? It's a place to connect with everyone, whether you realize it or not."
The library's got a few regular features: a Sunday Morning Bible picture, a Friday eReader shot, and coming soon, she says, a regular Tuesday Translation. Usually Ben-Haim just posts the picture and the book title, but occasionally she'll add an extended caption of sorts, like the time she saw the same guy reading the same book a month later. Sometimes she asks her Tumblr community for a little help identifying a title (they've figured out all but one).
Ben-Haim doesn't always ask permission for a shot, though if someone protests — they rarely do, aside for one notable confrontation, she says — she's quick to back off. She stopped revealing which train her "reading riders" were on because she didn't like the idea of segregating the city into what you might call literary genres.
"Over time I started to see patterns of what type of book was where, and what type of look and fashion was going on in each location," she says. "While that may be of use for an anthropologist, I'm not an anthropologist. I want to paint a specific picture, a unifying one, and so I decided to remove that whole aspect, because I thought it was divisive."
The head underground librarian will reveal a bit more about her personal preferences this fall through a series of self-portraits with books that mean something to her. In the meantime she's got no reason to tinker with a winning formula. Since launching her blog in December Ben-Haim's been profiled by the Wall Street Journal and accumulated some 13,000 Tumblr followers. Who says people don't care about books anymore? (Speaking of: the site is not affiliated with the Overground New York Public Library.)
Ben-Haim was kind enough to let Atlantic Cities re-post a few recent images. And here's a link to the library once more — in case you'd like to bookmark it.
The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar
Great Short Works of Dostoyevsky, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
(left) A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, by B.C. Southam; (right) Selected Poems, by T. S. Eliot.
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
(left) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, by Jeff Kinney; (right) Warriors, by Erin Hunter [Ed note: the parents gave permission.]
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
(far left) The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster; (middle, glasses) The Walls of the Universe, by Paul Melko
All images courtesy of Ourit Ben-Haim.