In New York City’s Subway system, there are 472 stations and almost 700 miles of track create a constantly growing narrative, unfolding in real time. Trains run 24 hours a day, producing a chaos of opportunity. So how does a photographer hope to find decisive moments within the constant flow and movement? The answer, according to Natan Dvir, is dedication.
“On those platforms,” Natan explains, “the coming and going of the trains is like a curtain moving across a theatre’s stage. Each time a train passes, it ushers in a new act. New people, new gestures. That means there is always plenty to see.”
“I always aspire for great,” he continues, “and for this project, which was shot for New York Magazine, it helped that my instincts were honed on a very similar series I’d made years before. The magazine was examining how people don't feel safe on the Subway anymore. Personally, I also wanted to look at ideas of loneliness, isolation and how travellers behave in these ‘non-places,’ which are somewhat anonymous and generic.”
Much the same as his original project, shot from 2014 to 2017, Natan used a repeating motif in his work, shooting from the opposite platform and using the columns of the Subway’s architecture to divide scenes into triptychs. “It’s a look I’d been interested in for a long time as when cropped into a panorama, it both replicates the style of an old film strip, and also echoes the religious triptychs of the Middle Ages.”
Through careful scouting of Subway stations – and a fortuitous repetition in the architecture – Natan was able to stick to this style with consistency, but it was still a process that involved some photographic heavy lifting. “The compositions are multi-dimensional in that every time I took a picture, I had to think in three formats. It’s my Sony Alpha 1’s full-frame format cropped into a panoramic view, which includes three squares. And within each of them you have to be aware of what is happening in parallel.”
The project, which Natan shot across 30 subway stations, including locations in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, took a week to complete and saw him make sure to photograph in a variety of conditions – from early morning commuting hours to the middle of the night, creating thousands of images.
Working along the platforms, “I didn’t stick to one spot,” Natan explains, “because every few steps the columns form a new set of frames and different arrangements of people – and therefore a different relationship within the triptych. You have to be active and observant in shooting, but sometimes things will happen in the frame that you didn’t even notice – the most amazing human gestures that you only see when you’re editing.”
Though more observant, formal, and distanced than many types of street photography, Natan still had to work fast and be sure he was getting sharp, detailed images that could be used for large prints. So naturally he turned to the Sony Alpha 1. “Having shot virtually the same project on a DSLR, I can vouch for the superiority of my Sony mirrorless cameras,” he says. “Shooting handheld in the dimness of the stations, and wanting to avoid blur, meant I concentrated on shooting people who weren’t moving, but I still needed to use shutter speeds around 1/80sec to 1/125sec, which meant working at higher ISOs.”
The Alpha 1 is amazing at high ISOs, and I also found I could pull detail out of shadows in post without suffering from colour noise or any other noise for that matter. I was typically shooting around ISO 2500, but when I had to go to ISO 4000 it was no biggie. On my old DSLR I would not have been confident, especially if I was printing at something like 150x50cm, where any loss of detail and increased noise can cost you dearly.”
With the Alpha 1 being small and light, it’s therefore suited to the mobility of street work, but Natan also made use of the guides in the camera’s electronic viewfinder to keep the triptych-forming columns perfectly vertical. “None of these pictures are straightened in post, it’s just how they were photographed, which is a critical thing to me, ethically. The EVF is really accurate to the final image, too. So, even in low and artificial lighting like that in the Subway, you can tell instantly what you’re getting in the exposure.”
Finally, with a significant number of images shot, how did Natan whittle them down to those used in the magazine and on his website? “The guiding principle to choosing the best images is that they really make you feel something. Those are the images you engage with. They captivate you, and they bring up the conversations that you want to have.”
"Being a photographer is not what I do, it's who I am"