Late on election night in 2016, I rode the subway home from what I had hoped would be a celebration, but the car was full and quiet and covered by a pall. Perhaps not everyone was thinking of the election, but the collective sense of gloom among New Yorkers was palpable.
In that scene, I saw some of the faces from George Tooker’s arresting 1950 painting, “The Subway,”1 in which people in moods of despair and anxiety are stuck in a purgatorial subway station. They wear dull expressions and clothes in shades of brown and beige, save for the woman in front who wears an alarm-red dress.
In the year after the election, I took photos of friends and other locals to make a modern gloss on “The Subway,” one that would capture something of the spirit of New York in these times. The people in Tooker’s painting are all white; the people in my photos are more diverse, more like New York itself. Many are the very kinds of people who are most under assault in the country today—poor people, people of color, immigrants, trans people. I asked them to strike a pose like one in the painting or to do whatever illustrated their feelings about the current political moment, whether despair, anger, indifference, sorrow, or determination.
In the painting, there is a maze of pillars and gates with no indication of an exit. Downstairs there are no trains. The passageway in the center seems to end in a wall. Even the stairs on the right lead up only to another level of gray; a man seems to guard the would-be exit, but perhaps only to say, “Don’t bother. You can’t leave.”
In the painting, there is no way out. In New York, and in the country today, we must make one.
The series continues. If you’d like to pose for a picture, please contact me at TheSubwayToday@gmail.com.