“I do not feel it is an accomplishment or unusual to observe and engage fully in each fleeting moment. When it happens, it seems to be the most interesting and intense way to pass through this existence.”
I wrote a column years ago about the photography of Telluride local Carl Marcus. Soon after, large prints of his portraits of Telluride children began appearing on the walls of the children’s section of the Wilkinson Public Library. They were fascinating. I was blown away. The photographer has a knack for getting the viewer right past the surface of whatever he’s focused his camera lens on, and directly encountering the soul or essence of his subject. Photographing children isn’t the easiest thing in the world. This one keeps pulling a face, that one has her attention elsewhere, another one can’t sit still for even the briefest moment. You can lose yourself while viewing these portraits. That’s one way to know you’re looking at, or hearing, great art. Does it transport you? Does it take you right out of yourself?
For the last month, Carl has had a show directly across from the library at the Telluride Arts headquarters on 135 W. Pacific Ave. The show is titled “What We Look At.” It is not like the photos in the library. It’s not like Marcus’ nature photos of elk and mountains and deserts. All it shares with these other genres is that uncanny knack of getting straight to the heart. Interpret that however you like. Your heart, Marcus’ heart, the heart of the subject, it’s really all the same anyway.
This time the subject is the Hunter College Station of New York City’s subway system and its riders waiting for a train. It sounds extraordinarily ordinary. It must be for them. Most of them pass this way multiple times in a typical week. Home to work, work to home, home to school, school to home, out for the night, and nothing here that they haven’t seen 100 times before. All except for that white-bearded character over there across the tracks staring into the screen of the camera he’s holding in his lap. What’s he up to? More than a few of his shots capture curious, sometimes hostile looks from individuals who’ve spotted him. Most of them didn’t make it into the show. For the most part, it’s a fly-on-the-wall sort of view of New York, with Marcus (and ourselves) the removed and remote observers.
What are we supposed to be seeing here? Is this underground passage really as stultifyingly banal as the many empty and bored expressions of the riders indicate? You come to expect that it’s not the case. If it were, then why would are you going back to the gallery day after day to take it in again? Why are you discovering something new on each visit? That’s been my experience at least.
There’s drama in these pictures. Something is happening, even if you can’t put your finger on it or “give it a name,” in Marcus’ words. Marcus has been asked if the show isn’t a statement about the social isolation of modern life? What’s up with all those people completely on their own and shoulder to shoulder with so many others equally preoccupied texting, checking in with their social networks or playing games on those ubiquitous cellphones? He claims he had no such agenda. He was there to observe and chronicle, not to judge or to preach. An observer doesn’t burden themselves with preconceptions. Preconceptions are a kind of filter.
I asked him why he chose the subway and not the streets. Plenty of photographers have had spectacular results shooting the crowds on Manhattan streets with that magnificent skyline as a backdrop. The streets are too full of action, he told me. In the subway, people are at rest and tend to drop their masks. They become, for a few moments, their true selves. There’s no one to please or impress, no one begging to be catered to. A paucity of pretense predominates. Those last words are my own, and I’m not necessarily proud of them. Forgive me, Marcus, if I riff a little on your theme.
You really ought to catch this show. There’s not much time left. On Sept. 4, it all comes down to make way for next month’s show. Leave your preconceptions behind, and just observe.