The Walker Evans approach to candid camera photography

I've always liked the story about how Walker Evans made his series of photographs of people riding the New York City subway between the years of 1938 - 1941. He would ride the train with the intention of taking photographs, but used a miniature camera hidden inside his coat to record the people seated opposite him. The appeal is not only that he was being sneaky, but also that he didn't really know what he was going to get in his pictures until he got back to the studio to develop the film.


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By taking photographs with a hidden camera, Evans gave up all of his visual control in how the image was framed, and only controlled the moment at which he chose to press on the shutter release. The artist's aim is pretty good, although some of the resulting images are tilted slightly, or have people cut off on the edge of the frame. In most cases it seems clear that the people have no idea whatsoever that they are being photographed, and so their expressions and actions are completely candid.

Photographs on the subway taken by Walker Evans

On a summer visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I went up to the roof deck to look around, and found quite a large crowd of people enjoying the view on a beautiful evening. For some reason, my memory of Walker Evans' discreet camera work popped into my head, and I decided to try my own experiment of candid camera work.

So I walked around the Met's roof deck, enjoying the view myself, but with the intention of snapping pictures of my fellow museum-goers. I didn't bother to hide my camera (I was using my phone camera), but I did hold it near my chest with the screen towards me but out of my range of vision, as if that were just how I was holding my phone as I was walking around. I just snapped away as I faced different groups of people, never sure of what I was getting, and not bothering to look until I had left the area.

One might argue that this is not "art" - it's just random pictures that were snapped without looking. But wasn't I looking at my subjects the same way Evans was looking at his? I chose my subjects with my eyes, I just didn't know how my camera would frame them until after I was done. One could also argue that the "art" comes into play when choosing how to edit, crop, and select what pictures to present.

The photographer Larry Sultan once said "The more you try to control the world, the less magic you get." So let's take a look at some of these photgraphs that were taken without much control, and see if we can find any "magic." I'll add some comments about what it is that I like about each photograph.

candid photos taken of people with a hidden camera

I like how it appears that this arm holding a camera is coming out of the neck of the woman in front.

photographs of people on the roof deck of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A man scratching his chin and tugging on his belt while deep in thought.



View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof Deck

A woman in a yellow dress and a man with a yellow sport coat in the yellow glow of the late afternoon sun.

Blurry people photographed on the roof deck of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An accidental soft focus which blurs everyone out while the glow of the sun fills the space between the people.

On the roof deck at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The central figure with the cut-off lumberjack shirt and the funky hair makes this one for me.

hidden camera photograph of people on roof deck at the Met

Catching this woman in the act of looking over the shoulder of the woman seated next to her ... is she being nosy? Or just looking down at her own feet?