TO SEE-TO INVADE
by Eucanaã Ferraz
Metropiks – To Mr. Walker, a photographic series by Raul Mourão, is an explicit conversation with the work of Walker Evans, the celebrated North American photographer who between 1938 and 1941 photographed passengers in New York subway cars.
It is known that Evans’ subjects were unaware that they were being photographed. To this end, he used a 35-mm camera tucked under his coat, the lens peeking out between the buttons, clicking it by means of a cable running inside his sleeve to the shutter button in his hand. The photographer thus penetrated an intimacy which, noncontradictorily, took place in public. When his subjects’ privacy was invaded without their prior or posterior knowledge, they were unwittingly removed from their anonymity to become photographic subjects. Although photojournalism did something similar, there are many differences between those photos made in the subway and the images captured with the aim of transmitting information. Perhaps the main difference is this: Evans was not seeking information, he was not driven by the event, much less by the exceptional; his photographs take note of the downtime, during transit from one place to another, when the suspension of action instills an intermission. Instead of gathering photos, the camera was seeking an atmosphere of utter defenselessness, where we can watch the unselfconscious marionettes in idleness, their strings slack. But there is no trace of transcendence, signs of something or someone manipulating the strings of the human destinies from above. Everything looks absolutely human and mundane. His work is also not about capturing anonymity in the midst of a crowd or group, as in the celebrated street photographs. In the subway images, solitude and abandonment are highlighted by the framing, allowing us to grasp the whole by the singular, since we feel the multitude pulsing in isolation. We are doubtlessly before “a parade of bare, expressionless faces; a long hotel corridor of half-open doors; a group portrait of the vast sea of humanity which is the city of New York.”1
In 1960, another North American, Enrico Natali, made a series similar to that of Evans. It should be noted, however, that Evan’s work was never shown until an exhibition in 1966, at the Museum of Modern Art of New York, when it was also published in a book under the title Many Are Called. Curiously, Natali’s series seems to follow the same principles and to obtain very similar results.2 In this light, the question that immediately arises is: had Natali seen Evans’ images before their public showing? I asked the photographer himself, who responded generously and quickly, stating that he had not seen Walker’s subway photos at the time that he was also photographing passengers in the subway cars and platforms, adding: “but I was familiar with his book, American Photographs, and was strongly influenced by it. The work of Evans and of Robert Frank were the two primary influences for my own work.”3 I also asked Natali about something that also approximates his series with that of Evans: were the passengers unaware that they were being photographed? Here’s his response:
For the subway photographs I used an Ikoflex twin lens reflex camera which was similar to a Rolleiflex. I had modified it so that the shutter could be released with the hood closed. I wore it over my shoulder by my side and could operate the camera with one hand including advancing the film. For the most part people did not know I was photographing. Also at that time it was not generally known that you could take photographs under those light conditions without flash. However Kodak had recently come out with a high speed film Royal X with an ASA of 1600, which made photography feasible.4
In Natali’s photographs as well as those of Evans, the subway is the preferred studio, almost a laboratory for the presentation of urban life, with melancholy and tiredness, along with some happiness, but always the bare faces and the unselfconscious gestures. The two photographers, two decades apart, saw the same thing: America without its masks of excitation, triumph and youth. The war that marked the span of time between the two artists, however, had left intact the desire for photography to show the American as an antihero, the photographer himself being a commonplace character, focused only on everyday life, with no desire except to record what anyone at all could see. All they had to do was to enter one of those subway cars and there would be those men and women, old people and children, clothing styles, scenes – all of that which Walker and Natali froze in their gazes with the aim of showing their own ordinary dimension, even though in order to do this they both needed to act unexpectedly, working clandestinely and even illegally, since in those decades it was prohibited to photograph in the subway.5
Six years after Natali, the underground city, mainly Brooklyn, reappeared in a series by another North American photographer, Danny Lyon.6 Now, however, the slides shot with a Rolleiflex camera show colored images, in which everything takes on a chestnut tone, akin to that of bronze, or they are imbued by bluish white hue of steel and ceramic tile, which curiously appears heated by some other element, as though some sort of rust were always in store for time, for the life of the materials. The main difference between his work and that of Evans and Natali, however, is that Lyon did not conceal his camera. Perhaps this is why the atmosphere he obtained seems less distant and cold, as the color helps to situate it on a melancholic but mellow scale. Another notable feature is Lyon’s interest in the subway stations, whose walls, ceilings and lights, along with the trains, are valorized as planes, surfaces, color, texture, as though the photographer’s gaze was guided as much by the plastic-graphic qualities of the scene as by his interest in the human figure.
A sort of heightening of Lyon’s work can be seen in the series by Bruce Davidson, in the 1980s. Here, rust has corroded all the surfaces, entirely covered by graffiti. Davidson’s photos seem to retain the sounds of the urban babble, the stroboscopic light reflected on the metallic surface of the subway cars resulting in a violent, threatening, mysterious, decadent, overpowering world in which the darkness contrasts with ultravibrant yellows and reds. Skin – mainly that of the black people – substitutes the somber clothing that prevails in the images by Walker Evans and Enrico Natali. Sensuality, already present in the series by Lyon, is no longer a vague insinuation and emerges with explosive force. The massive presence of graffiti tagging keeps the eye constantly moving, zigzagging excitedly among senseless, exasperated messages like shouts that do not reach the surface of the city. The suspended time of the trip – described above as downtime – now gains dramaticity as though there was no longer any chance for idleness and rest, not even during transit. In this light, there is an elegant touch here, as instead of clandestine photography we have pose and frontality: the photographer and his subjects are in action. Everything is part of a narrative, evidencing energy and movement.
Although the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) had begun to violently repress the shouts of the graffiti already in the mid-1980s,7 another photographer, John Conn, would still capture that excessive, turbulent and, in the broadest sense, underground world. But unlike Davidson, Conn constructed a series in black and white, thereby replacing Davidson’s colorful curving myriad by the sharp-edged light of steel, which seems to scatter over everything, giving rise to an uneasiness that is far removed from the eroticized violence of Davidson’s photographs. In one of Conn’s photographs we see the arm of a man dangling out the window, knife in hand. The image seems to summarize the atmosphere of his series, in which beings and things seem to be covered by a metallic coating of light.
It is not by chance that, at different moments, with different efforts, aims and results, photographers from the United States and other countries have focused on the subway. The genealogy of subway shooters has included Helen Levitt, Cartier-Bresson, Bill Cunningham, Nan Goldin, Ferdinando Scianna, Martha Cooper, Mark Cohen, Geoffrey Hiller, and others. It is curious to note, therefore, that with Metropiks Raul Mourão becomes part of this lineage.
Without aiming to find a common thread, I think that all of these photographers were interested in descending into that underground world for feeling that the characters there were more real than those on the surface. Here we find something that we can call photographic reality. Getting back to Walker Evans and Enrico Natali, I think that for them the subway served as a studio, a concentrated environment where the characters were clearly displayed, standing out from the background in a more or less stable light. That is, everything appeared ready to be photographed. The framing made the life there look more real than what was taking place outside, above ground. Although the subway cars and platforms served as a much more troubled studio for Bruce Davidson and John Conn, they all sought in the depths – literally – a truth that could be immediately seen. Thus, photography found itself face-to-face with its ideal object, fully exercising its potential for realism in direct capture.
In keeping with his position outside the field of professional photography, Raul Mourão opted for a nonprofessional technique: capturing images on his smartphone, more specifically, an iPhone. Like Evans – cited in the title of his series – and Natali, the Brazilian also chose to use a process for capturing the passengers unawares.
To do this, he kept his telephone always in camera mode and with the dimmest display, to ensure that no one would notice what was happening. With his cell phone in hand, Raul would approach the person he was interested in photographing and then press the volume button, which snapped the photo. When the chosen passenger was traveling standing up, Raul would get close to him or her with the cell phone next to his ear, as though immersed in conversation; when the protagonist was seated, Mourão would remain on his feet, holding the camera with his arm extended at his side. For all its appearance of inventiveness, the process was
a simple one.
Like Evans and Natali, Mourão worked with a schism between the choice made by the eye and the actual capture. That is, in this process, the framing is chosen and imagined, but the eye never looks through the lens. Although on the one hand we find total realism here, it is also necessary to consider that the schism between the eye and the camera obliges the photographer to form a mental image of something which, contradictorily, is present. So as he captures his object, the photographer has only an uncertain idea of what will be recorded by the camera, since at that moment he can only imagine the final result. While the uncontrolled framing approximates Mourão’s work to that of Evans and Natali, it differs from theirs in a decisive aspect: the degree of closeness to the subject. While the two Americans kept a reasonable spatial distance, in Raul’s work we see a striving for physical proximity.
Even while this sort of tangible visibility is a nod to the images made by Bruce Davidson, there is no doubt that they involve two distinct approaches: the passengers knew that they were being photographed by Davidson, which (along with the saturated color) lends his images their sensual atmosphere; this link between the photographer and the subject instates a hyperbolic theatricality. For his part, by opting for an intimacy known only to one of the parties, Mourão achieves another theatrical effect, involving an unequivocal encroachment of privacy.
And here it seems possible – or even desirable – to recognize to
what degree this inclination is in keeping with other works by
the artist. This brings to mind his sculptures, which so often directly or indirectly appropriate the gratings that protect the buildings in cities – because in Metropiks I see the creator advance over the conventions, trespassing the symbolic gratings that protect intimacy.
It was Mourão himself who once observed, concerning his obsession for the gratings in the urban space: “the population does not see the gratings that surround the constructions, they only grasp the defensive function”.8 The accumulation of metallic bars protecting houses, buildings, stores, public squares and monuments becomes invisible due to their normalization, but a single element isolated from its function is enough to expose the fear, insecurity and disparagement of urbanity.
The “defensive function” indisputably became a justification above all other considerations, but Mourão unflaggingly shifts the pieces and rules of the game, shedding light on the collective urban paranoia in works that display a strange alliance between aesthetics and political commentary, ready-made art and social criticism, carnivalization and discipline. While undertaking a program of capture where the passengers do not know that they are being photographed, Mourão seems to bear in his gaze the memory of the gratings, suggesting that we likewise bear them with us when we shut ourselves off from the gaze of others, glued to the screens of our smartphones, unless one of them invites us for a shared experience, totally alienated from our surroundings. And it is here that Raul wages a struggle against the fragility and fallacy of the “defensive function.”
I consider Metropiks more than an homage to Many Are Called. More precisely, Raul makes an appropriation of this series by Walker Evans, and then launches into both admiration and parody. By substituting the professional photographer by anyone, Metropiks makes it obvious how much the process invented by the American is at the reach of anyone, and how much it can be refined, adapted, re-created, and vulgarized. In this movement toward the commonplace, Raul makes a foray into the history of art and of depiction since the 20th century, disrespecting the values of private property and possession and, consequently, disarming the value of technical mastery – in other words, of specialization – as well as the ideas of style and coherence.
Curiously, it is coherence that I am speaking of (though in other words) when I observe how much Metropiks seems to maintain an internal connection with the rest of Raul Mourão’s vast and fragmentary oeuvre.
I have previously observed that the abstraction of his works “ has
always been based on indistinct and problematic dynamics.”
(…) their geometry comes from everyday objects, such as building façades, soccer fields, fences and signage of public works. While throughout his career the artist has striven for increasingly free formal organizations, at the same time, he has always exhibited the memory of processes of research rooted in urban and daily life.9
Metropiks therefore dialogues with the artist’s oeuvre as a whole, including with the geometry of his sculptures, whose porosity can be thought of not as a quality of the materials, but of the shapes, which yearn to be shot through by psychosocial recollections. All his effort, however, continues to be focused on constructing figures that are balanced and surprising within the space. Instead of narrative content, we find interplays of visual-poetic values in which commonplace impurity is a driver of the language, rather than an end in itself.
I dare say that Raul Mourão’s most intimate impulse is a search for harmony and, consequently, a search for the formal qualities related to a state of balance and agreement that is as desired as it is impossible in the temporary and spatial precariousness in which we live. Not by chance, his authentic, intense inclination for social criticism is reflected in his examination and condemnation of the disharmony, the disequilibrium and the void that prevail in the daily life of the cities. Threat, repulsion, boredom, injustice, the automation of the human, and relations of power always arise in the tension between planning and randomness, everyday narratives and universalizing abstraction, intuition and control. Metropiks is headed in this same direction.
It would be worthwhile to briefly compare Raul Mourão’s series with that of Andre D. Wagner, Here for the Ride, especially in terms of their temporal proximity, since they were both made in the first quarter of this decade. The publisher that produced that book of photos in 2017 – Creative Future, of Copenhagen – described it as an exploration of “the poetic side of daily life.” Perhaps the term “poetic” is here charged with ambiguity, since we can suppose that certain qualities are attributed to it: that which is pleasant, polite, agreeable, etc. Wagner’s photographs show the racial, ethnic and sociocultural diversity in the New York subway, reflected especially by the presence of black people occupying spaces – opening spaces – in the subway cars. At least here, in this shared experience, a certain degree of serenity can be found, especially when it is children and adolescents who are framed in the image. While the photographs also convey tiredness, melancholy, and confusion, many of them display a tenderness and happiness entirely foreign to the images shot by Raul Mourão. The latter are pervaded by an undisguisable roughness, including in the often unpleasant glare that bursts out of the reflections on the windows. Some sequences even look like chases, as though the photographer were pursuing certain passengers, like a paparazzo. What we can call “poetic” in these images has to do with an awareness of language.
In 1999, Raul Mourão planned a public artwork he entitled Carro/Árvore/Rua [Car/Tree/Street]. The proposal consisted in planting a tree in a truck’s transport bed and driving it around the streets of the city. Concerning this artwork, Paulo Herkenhoff coined the term “(i)mobilidade ativa” [active (im)mobility]. I am borrowing it insofar as it applies to the ambiguity that reappears in Metropiks: after all, it is not totally clear how much mobility and immobility there is in the urban transport. The “active” condition likewise indicates that for Raul even what appears immobile plays a role in the urban space, which becomes eloquently obvious when the subject is pictured in a non-normal condition. In Metropiks, as in other works by the artist, we are spurred to consider mobility as a characteristic of that which is able to move by itself or is capable of being moved, but above all, we are brought to reflect on every ability for movement, any capacity for presenting variations. Mourão urges the viewer to think about impermanency, about states of spirit, about the instability of facts, about social (im)mobility, about the movements of art into and out of enclosed spaces, about objects and signs that have been emptied and/or bereft of value yet requalified when they are shifted from their normal places.
Perhaps routine is Raul Mourão’s “public enemy number one.” I also suppose that the subway in New York – the city where the artist has maintained a studio since 2013 – wound up interesting him for being a place where the materiality of a mobile, changeable and variable reality is confining through repetition. If on the one hand the people are always different, on the other, the cramped nature of the scenery/studio alludes to the homogeneity inherent to the overpowering anonymity of the metropolises. The photographer – an invader and trickster – aims to show both difference and similarity. Coincidence, reiteration, reproduction:decisive signs of our lives, which are inevitably repeated in some subway car/world, in a duration that only the instantaneity of photography can capture.