A photographer finds transcendence on the Tube.
Bored during his daily commute through London one day, photographer Matt Crabtree, like his fellow Tube dwellers, was staring at his phone. When he looked up, he saw “a woman that was held in a moment that just looked so beautiful and serene,” Crabtree tells CityLab over email. She was “lit from above by the harsh Tube lighting, reading a book that could’ve been a treasured prayer book from centuries past—a million miles away from the Tube carriage 200 feet below London.”
Crabtree raised his phone and snapped a picture. A self-taught photographer and a creative director at an advertising agency in London, the Yorkshire resident was inspired by the results to embark on a series of commuter photographs.
He uses a retouching app to doctor the images, muting the background and softening the glow around people’s faces; his iPhone-shot commuters resemble Renaissance paintings of penitents illuminated by the grace of God, rather than the fluorescent lights of the Underground.
His 16th-Century Tube Passengers series is all a bit tongue-in-cheek; Crabtree says the idea really solidified around a portrait he snapped of a woman in a velvet hooded top that looked straight out of the Renaissance. But it was the faces of his fellow commuters that captivated. “Those strong side profiles, those slightly whimsical daydreamers looking to the heavens—we see these images in Renaissance paintings, and we feel they’re so forced and contrived by the painter,” he says.
But the distinctive faces exist in real life; they peek out from the silent crowds on the Underground. London’s transit culture frowns upon interpersonal communication. Stridently avoiding eye contact and conversation, Londoners ride the Tube in bubbles of introspection, lost in their iPhones and headphones. While those divisions between people are the stuff of modernity, the bliss of a solitary moment, Crabtree says, cuts across centuries. “It’s kind of funny,” he says, “that our daily technology can capture that in a heartbeat.”