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Documenting Subway Travel's Most Intimate Moments

Photo journalist Rebecca Davis captures riders in a voyeuristic style reminiscent of Walker Evans.

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Rebecca Davis

Going out on assignment as a videographer for the New York Daily News, Rebecca Davis was on the subway a lot. A lot. A couple hours a day some days. Coming home from shooting the Thanksgiving Day parade in 2011, someone across from her was wearing a turkey hat, and she finally decided to use the time. She put away her intrusive work camera, took out her slim iPhone, and began taking pictures.

During the year 2012, Davis passed the time to the tune of about 3,300 subway iPhone photos, she says. In the spring she started a Tumblr page to showcase the gallery she called "Commuters" (via Animal New York). Recently the 30-year-old Davis, who's since become a senior multimedia editor at Today.com, arranged many of her commuters into a video flipbook set to the song "Brains" by the Lower Dens.

"It started as a project to pass time while I was on the subway." Davis says. "I really spent a lot of time on the train."

Davis's shots capture riders across from her in a voyeuristic style reminiscent of Walker Evans. She was inspired by a project Evans did in the late 1930s eventually published as the book Many Are Called. Evans took 600 photos "using a 35-millimeter Contax hidden beneath his coat, its lens peering out between buttons like a spy, and its subjects as unsuspecting as quarry in a hunter's scope," according to the New York Times.

"I feel that cell phone photography is similar," Davis says, who, like Evans before her, doesn't ask permission before taking a shot, to preserve the moment. (She says no one has ever contacted her with a problem.) "You can surreptitiously take pictures that way and catch people in these very authentic moments. IPhone photography, I felt that was my way to build out the project he'd done, with more modern tools."

This approach enables Davis to document what many consider intimate moments between fellow travelers. Her Tumblr page and video slideshow are full of them. From sloppy kissing to lap-sitting to hand-holding. From furtive and not-so-furtive glances to splayed legs to some dude looking at lingerie ads. Davis says she's interested in the "public-private" culture of the subway (which in the past we've called being "alone together").

"It's a very public space, but you find people having domestic disputes on their cell phone, or cutting their nails, as if no one's around them," she says. "I think a lot is New Yorkers are so used to living in these cramped spaces that we get good at ignoring everyone around us, so people feel they have the liberty to act as if they are in a private space even when they're out in public."

When Davis's unwitting subjects aren't getting intimate, they're looking rather — well, let's say less than happy. Davis prefers to describe the looks as "pensive" or "exhausted." What you're seeing, she says, is "the day on their face." Part of the chilly tone is due no doubt from Davis shooting with the Hipstagram app and using a filter known as the John S. lens that emphasizes blues.

These days, when she's not taking photos on the train, Davis finds herself less inclined to vanish into a music player and more attuned to those around her. "Sometimes I think it's nice to not have ear buds in your ears, and take time to take in that environment on the train," she says. As a journalist and "naturally nosy person" she enjoys thinking about each rider's story — where they're coming from, where they're going.

"Just to have constant things to look at and see, and be entertained by and interested by — there's never a dull moment," she says.

 

All images courtesy of Rebecca Davis.

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