JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 black-and-white photographs and 6 black-and-white videos arranged in the gallery’s two rooms. The 5 pigment prints (in sizes from 13 7/8 x 97 3/4 to 26 3/4 x 70 1/8) are hung in white frames, two on the entrance partition, the others in the smaller room of the gallery. The videos are of different durations (from 9 min. 25 sec. to 24 min. 48 sec.) and play simultaneously on the east and west walls in the larger main room, where the gelatin silver prints are hung, in black frames, on the north and south walls. A newspaper catalog has been printed to coincide with the show and is available for free in the gallery. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Crowds of commuters in subways, buses, and trains make up a subgenre of street photography that is by now so jammed with examples that the doors are bulging out. Ever since 1938 when Walker Evans began his sneaky, cable-release-up-his-sleeve underground portrait series, the populist theme of the anonymous mass transit voyager, on his or her way to destinations unknown, has enticed generations of urban documentarians. Some of those who have put their stamp on the subject would include Lou Stettner, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Thomas Roma, Tom Wood, Eugene Richards, Michael Wolf, Dagmar Keller, and Reinier Gerritsen. (The definite possibility of an ugly confrontation with a suspicious passenger or law officer may explain why far more men than women are on this list.)
The Berlin-based artist Adam Magyar has updated this tradition with a command of digital technology as impressive as his regard for worldwide humanity. For his debut in a U.S. gallery, he has chosen to display three experimental bodies of works, videos as well as still photographs, all of them done between 2007-2015 in the subways of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, Seoul, Mumbai and New York.
The least successful of his efforts is his series called Urban Flow. Taken with a so called slit-camera, a set-up of his own design that employs computer scanner technology, the rig produces images not unlike those developed in the 1930s for horse racing and the Olympic games. (Better than have me describe and misinterpret him, anyone interested should watch his video presentation: http://petapixel.com/2014/01/13/adam-magyar-talks-tech-behind-mesmerizing-photo-video-series/)
The scanner produces a stacked set of bands on the image, only the thin bottom layer of which contains vital information about the people, the ostensible reason for the picture. The rest is pretty visual noise. Magyar claims this distracting byproduct of his process is intentional in that it shows we are “just one layer of the whole universe.” He’ll have to pardon me for not believing him.
More assured and clean are the videos and photographs in his Stainless series. Customizing a slow-motion camera he has aimed it in two directions—from inside a subway car looking out at the platform as it enters a station, and from the platform looking at the subway cars as they come to a stop in front of the platform. The startling body and facial detail he captures reveal that unique interior state of mind when we are exposed in public and yet think of ourselves as invisible and alone. Software allows him to prolong a 12-second exposure to 12 minutes and to clean up the splotchy flickers of underground lighting so that everything has an unusual but not an unnatural clarity.
In some of the videos a child will be seen slowly running, a man will tilt to stare at his phone, a woman lift a hand or arm. More striking is the weary tranquility on their faces, the resignation of people who enured to waiting.
Rather than highlight differences in mass transit systems, or the contrast in dress between, say, subway passengers in Paris and Mumbai, Magyar portrays everyone here as existing in an enchanted state that could be heaven or hell or somewhere in-between. (Watching the videos, I could not help flashing on Albert Brooks’s 1991 movie, Defending Your Life, a comic fantasy where the recently dead ride on buses and airport shuttles while on their way to who knows where.)
Magyar is rightfully wary of slow-motion as “eye candy”—as a device that can gild any action with unearned grace and purpose. His videos have an obvious rapport with James Nares’ Street, a collection of floating New York images shot with a slow-motion camera during 2011 from a moving car. Edited from 16 hours into an intricate 61 minutes of dreamlike activity, it was exhibited room-sized at the Met in 2013 and accompanied by a Thurston Moore guitar soundtrack.
But whereas, Nares often aimed his camera so that passersby crossed its path at many angles, Magyar’s frontal approach makes his figures statuesque, almost like Egyptian carvings. The rhythm of the procession is also more drawn out and the crowds less cluttered so that anonymous individuality is more easily appreciated. The soundtrack consists of nothing but the room tone of the subway stations themselves.
Magyar estimates that he has photographed/scanned more than 200,000 people. But in studying masses of humanity with a slow, careful regard for each urban underground traveler, he has avoided the pitfalls of films like Gregory Riggio’s films Koyaanisqatsi or Powaqqatsi, which in their sped-up portrayals of the world’s growing populations, edited to accompany Philip Glass’s frantic arpeggios, become numbing examples of what they’re supposedly decrying. In choosing to include only dignified characters in his pictures, Magyar seems respectful (maybe too respectful) of his fellow human beings. The woefully impoverished and mentally ill come standard with mass transit but somehow are not riding when he is.
Disciplined, self-critical, curious about places outside his apartment and far from his local Starbucks, fully engaged by photographic technology (old and new) but not enslaved by it, Magyar is an artist to watch. As thoughtfully resolved as the pictures in his Stainless series now appear, they may be even more rewarding to examine in 10, 20, 50, or 100 years.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The pigment prints are priced from $9000 to $12000 (for the last print in the edition of 8.) The gelatin silver prints are in editions of 6 and begin at $13000. All prices include frames. The videos range in price from $15000 (for three of the four) to $20000 (for the longest.) Magyar’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.