The Look: An Ode to Acts of Kindness on the New York City Subway
For many New Yorkers, their subway line is a second home. They see their neighbors on the same route; they know which car will be closest to their exit; and they have favorite spots for the ride. Mr. Wagner, who has been taking photographs in the subway since 2013 and whose book, “Here for the Ride,” will be published this week, likes to stand in front of the doors. “I can see everything in the car that way,” he said.
With a background in social work, he was interested in capturing acts of kindness, among other things, in the confined spaces. “I wanted to witness those acts of humanity happening in this very public space,” he said. “People giving up their seats to a mother and child or helping hold the door for someone running to catch the train.”
Of the two young women above, Mr. Wagner said: “It took me right back to my childhood with my friends, trying to figure out how to get our hair together. It made me think about black culture and friendship.”
Mr. Wagner was drawn to the tenderness of this couple. “The way she leaned her head on her partner and the way he leans into her,” he said. “It’s just one of these little things you know by riding the subway.”
Mr. Wagner’s photos capture the diversity of people who sit next to one another in harmony. “They’re all in their own worlds, but they’re still sharing the same space,” he said.
A woman on the J train.
When Mr. Wagner started taking pictures, he studied the work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Roy DeCarava. “I’m constantly dissecting what were they saying and how were they engaging with their time,” he said. He saw this image as a 2017 homage to those photographers, and was taken with how it spoke to the fashions of the day. “And it speaks to how youth occupy space, how these couples are engaging with each other and making this little bit of time on this platform enjoyable,” he said.
“The flattop is just a staple in black culture,” Mr. Wagner said. “If you watch black classic films, like Spike Lee’s movies, so many people were wearing flattops. A flattop was fresh, and if you didn’t have the right fade and the right lineup up, you weren’t doing it right.”
“This is just one of those moments that we walk past every day,” he said. “I’m always trying to capture something more from the mundane things in life.”
“The subway is a style inspiration,” Mr. Wagner said of this man on the J train. “You’ve got a lot of young professionals, artists, all kinds of stylish people. I’m always seeing people who look good.”
A woman at a J train stop.
Mr. Wagner was drawn to this scene by what it says about how we communicate and pass time in 2017. “Back in the ’50s, a Walker Evans subway photo would be like this, but instead of phones, everybody would have had a newspaper.”
Entwined on a subway platform.
“Kids love subway windows,” said Mr. Wagner, who also loves the windows, especially on his local J train, which goes above ground. “They don’t care who’s next to a window, they will climb on strangers to look out the window. She probably is on the subway line every single day, but it just doesn’t get old.”
“I just love the way they’re just kind of embracing in this open romance in the subway as he’s reading this book,” Mr. Wagner said. “It almost looks like they’re reading it together.”
Waiting for the train.
The subway is one of the most democratic aspects of New York City. “You can be sitting down and look right across to see people who are completely different from one another,” Mr. Wagner said. “Even though they might not share the same space as far as where they live or where they’re going, for this brief moment, they’re all in it together.”
Mr. Wagner witnessed this public display of affection from a passing subway car. “We always think about how grungy and nasty the subway can be, especially during the summertime, but right here it just looks so romantic.”
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