In his new book entitled Roosevelt Station, New York photographer David Rothenberg captures his subjects – commuters, airport-bound travelers, panhandlers, missionaries, and others – awash in the radiant, cathedral-like light of Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street train station’s concourse. These otherwise candid, rush-hour images assume an otherworldly theatrical guise.
Imagine a scene from a movie, shot in high definition and luscious colour, in which the two most talented movie stars of their day act out the final moments of a tumultuous love story. In this tale, the couple has been inseparable for months, sharing every little detail and moment of their lives, but now they must part. The setting is a subway station. Walking through the busy concourse, they go through the fullest range of emotions. Euphoria. Melancholy. Confusion. Anger. Resentment. Despair. Loneliness. Love. Longing. Loss.
The director of the film is a realist at heart, and has decided to shoot the scene in one twelve-minute take, in a real subway station, on a real and busy morning. The crew has been dismissed. Only the camera operator, the director and the two actors are present. They have rehearsed for several days but they know that anything can happen in this unpredictable setting. They must rely upon the spark of contingency to give life to their performances.
The film has been shot in sequence over several weeks, and this final scene is the last day of production. Everything rests upon what happens in these twelve minutes. As the actors perform, the lightweight camera swirls and swoops. On several occasions, the pair disappears in the criss-crossing of frenetic commuters. The director keeps the frame wide. The camera takes in everything – planned movements, chance gestures, countless micro-interactions between performers and public, and the ever-shifting patterns of light and shade. The actors hit their marks, get their lines right, and show great composure in the flow of people. At the end of the take there is an enormous feeling of relief.
Five months later, the movie is released to exceptional reviews, but the public stays away. It flops at the box office and is pulled from distribution after little more than a week. The actors are already shooting their next films but the director is distraught. It was brave and artistically ambitious to shoot the entire film without close-ups, letting the actors blend into the everyday settings. But the public prefers to see the faces of movie stars, intimately close.
Years later, the film is revived in an unexpected way. Watching it at home via a streaming website, an artist begins to notice many moments of profound beauty and understated drama that have nothing to do with the lead actors. A woman stepping into a pool of pure magenta light; a child looking innocently through a glass partition; a man in sunglasses and leather jacket descending the stairs with great poise. Over and over, the artist pauses the flow, turning the narrative into frozen tableaux of accidental perfection. The artist makes a poetic photo-documentary from within a fiction film.
This is not how David Rothenberg made these images. He is not a filmmaker, nor an appropriator of movie imagery. He is an acutely observant photographer who has spent many hours on many days taking pictures in a New York station: Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street.
It is difficult to imagine the histories of both photography and cinema without the train station. The first film ever screened in public showed a locomotive pulling carriages into a platform. Movies as different as The Lady Vanishes, Brief Encounter and The Darjeeling Limited express the innate dynamism and drama of train travel. Stations and carriages have attracted the finest still photographers too, including Luc Delahaye, Bruce Davidson, and Helen Levitt. But it is Walker Evans’ subway portraits that remain the touchstone for many, eighty years on. Seated in dim light with a concealed camera, Evans photographed whomever happened to take the seat opposite him. From his haul of around six hundred images, he selected and cropped restlessly, publishing little groups, and eventually a book, of the project. In Harper’s Bazaar magazine, he described the subway as the ‘dream “location” for any portrait photographer weary of the studio and the horrors of vanity’. ‘Location’ was a canny choice of word to denote a considered selection of a place. Go there, wait, and see what happens.
Evans knew his cinema too. He went to the movies often, and reviewed films for Time magazine during the Second World War. Early in his career, he dabbled in verité filmmaking, but preferred a measured stillness. Late in his career, he saw McCabe and Mrs Miller, Robert Altman’s miraculous film in which two of the biggest stars of their day – Julie Christie and Warren Beatty – really do disappear into the anonymity of their setting. Evans described it as a marvelous bunch of photography’. The phrase startles but he was right about that particular film, and in the wider sense too. All films are photographs given to be seen in an unusual way. Films, narrative ones at least, direct the eye and mind far more emphatically than the static and solitary frame. To prefer photography over cinema is, in general, to prefer the unemphatic.
The social spaces of advanced capitalism are – like those who pass through them, and those who might photograph them – caught somewhere between surveillance and spectacle. That is to say, such spaces are at once traps and stages, realms of private introspection and conspicuous public display. As a result, the act of photographing here, at least in the manner of David Rothenberg, must be somewhere between reportage and theatre. Of course, every photograph theatricalises what is photographed. Every photograph of a person turns them momentarily into a player, an object into a prop, a space into a stage. All become signs of themselves. Dramatic, but enigmatic and ambiguous signs. Today this phenomenon feels heightened and intensified, because the most fundamental effect of living in a culture saturated with images, both still and moving, is that photography penetrates the consciousness and the very fabric of the world. We, and these spaces, do not exactly expect to be imaged, but we are not surprised when they are. We carry cameras that allow us to document our daily experiences, still or moving. Our concourses are sites of intensive advertising, but are also the subject of ceaseless scrutiny by networked security cameras, still and moving. This is the kind of observed and observable space that many of us now call normal. Call it the theatre of everyday life. Or the film set.
It is hard not to think of the intense splashes of light that dapple Roosevelt Station as chromatic accents on this whole state of affairs*. Its concourse and staircases have no need to look so pretty, nor to be so self-consciously photogenic. It is not just passengers that this place anticipates, but cameras too. A well-lit trap for shadow catchers. What is far less simple to anticipate is a photographer as careful, fascinated and committed as David Rothenberg. Without judgment or the horrors of vanity, he has entered the trap and paced its hectic stage, to bring us gifts of calm contemplation. The flow is halted, the frame is frozen. Background becomes foreground. Extras become players. Momentarily.
By David Campany
David Campany is a curator, writer, and Managing Director of Programs at the International Center of Photography, in New York. This essay is republished from the original book.
Roosevelt Station, by David Rothenberg, is published by Perimeter Editions, $49. The book is available here.