All images courtesy the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York.
PASSENGERS is Chris Marker’s second photographic exhibition featuring images from the Paris Métro. These days, if I wanted to somehow meet Chris Marker, I would probably go to Paris and ride the trains all afternoon hoping for a glimpse of him—it is becoming his natural habitat. But why is an artist/filmmaker/writer, whose work has literally taken him all over the entire world, now so intrigued by the transport system underneath the city in which he lives?
When I first saw Marker’s 1982 essay-film Sans Soleil—a film that defies synopsis—one of the immediate impressions it left me with was the vivid intensity with which the filmmaker was able to process the world around him, even the slightest things. One sequence in the film that lasts several minutes simply focuses on the faces of people riding the trains in and around Tokyo. At various points in the sequence, Marker inserts stills from old Japanese horror films, as if the faces on the train reminded him of the dream-like faces that he remembered from images on late-night television. The sequence thus became not merely a documentary montage of sleeping commuters on their way to the office, but a visual rendering of how the mind works—how memory works.
Marker is at it again in PASSENGERS. Comprised of over two hundred digital photographs taken in the Paris Métro between 2008 and 2010, the exhibition—spanning two galleries in SoHo and Chelsea—illuminates the beauty and poetry that is all around us in our everyday lives, if we only begin to look. Mounted unframed on the gallery walls, the images, predominantly of women, evoke the quality of portraits hanging in a museum. But what this exhibition shows us is that we do not need to take the Métro to the Musée d’Orsay to have the particular aesthetic experience that comes with viewing great art—the Métro itself will do.
This comparison to art comes across most strikingly in a series of larger images Marker calls “A Subway Quartet” arranged on the back wall of the SoHo gallery, which features insets of famous paintings that each image seems to recall. One photograph of a young woman in profile sitting by herself on the train is paired with an inset showing a detail of Nimue, in profile, from Burne-Jones’s Beguiling of Merlin. The strong jaw line, the pursed lips, the angular nose, the deep-set eyes staring straight ahead with intensity—the images match in almost every particular, right down to the woman’s coiled hair, calling to mind the coils around the hair of Nimue. Marker seems to have altered the image somewhat, imbuing it with a softness that is typical of the atmosphere in Burne-Jones’s dream-like paintings. In another photograph from this series, a young girl whom Marker seems to be sitting across from looks straight into the camera with an almost unsettling directness. Marker pairs the image with a detail from an Ingres portrait—which, again, bears a stunning resemblance to the photograph—though there is also a languidness in her direct gaze that is reminiscent of the barmaid from Manet’s Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère.
Of course, that is what is so exciting about Marker’s work. It is hard to view one of his films, or look at his photographs, without seeing connections of your own. There is almost an impatience one feels to leave the movie theater, or the art gallery, and to go out into the streets, or the trains, to begin to capture images yourself. For a full year after seeing Sans Soleil for the first time, a friend and I filmed sequences of daily life all over Manhattan, plummeting the mysteries of the quotidian like visitors from a far-off place. And after seeing this exhibition, I can confess to having photographed—with my cell phone—a couple women standing in a crowd and waiting for the train. Some might dismiss such images as purely voyeuristic, and there is an undeniable boldness in what Marker has done: taking photographs of women on the train, who often are not even aware that they are being photographed, and displaying those images in a New York art gallery and accompanying book. The sleeping woman on the Métro, perhaps coming back from a long day at the office, may have never noticed Marker at all sitting across from her. What would she think to know that her image now hangs in an art gallery juxtaposed to the portrait of the Mona Lisa? But voyeurism is indiscriminate—it is the gaze reacting to an image. Here, it is Marker’s extraordinary gaze that finds the image amid the crowd and isolates it.
“Cocteau used to say that at night, statues escape from museums and go walking in the streets,” Marker notes in a brief comment on the exhibition. “During my peregrinations in the Paris Métro, I sometimes had such unusual encounters. Models of famous painters were still among us, and I was lucky enough to have them sitting in front of me.”
Perhaps Marker’s attraction to the subway lies in the fact that it brings together people from all walks of life and forces them to confront each other, even if only for the length of time between two Métro stations—the Trocadéro and Rue de la Pompe or Pont Neuf and Châtelet. Something about the way that seats are arranged on the subway, how they face each other—unlike on distance trains (with the seats lined up row behind row)—makes the act of looking that much more inescapable. And in that act of looking, the question becomes: what do we see? “I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me,” Marker says at the beginning of Sans Soleil. “On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.”
In PASSENGERS, Marker has once again tracked his fellow human beings at their most unguarded and banal—nodding off after a hard day’s work, gazing blankly out the window and listening to an iPod, reading a book or a text message—and captured almost iconic images that linger in memory long after you have left the gallery. Anyone who has lived in a major city and taken the subway has seen these images before—but perhaps has never seen them before as images. The girl languidly resting her head against the window does not only exist in the Paris Métro—I have seen her in the subway in New York, I have seen her in a film that Marker made almost thirty years ago in Japan. Like Calvino’s Invisible Cities—in which it is eventually clear that all of Marco Polo’s ponderous descriptions of the cities that he has traveled to are actually descriptions of a single city: Venice—these images from the Paris Métro are truly images that are universal, images from every city. They capture the space in our day when we transition from one place to another, crowded together, but alone with our thoughts—moments that are at once private and public.
One of the most popular features on the Craigslist website is a section called “Missed Connections,” in which individuals write brief descriptions of someone they encountered in the course of the day whom they would like to find and meet again. In an age when technology has increasingly alienated us from real-life contact, these often forlorn messages evince our basic need to connect with someone—and the power of a glance exchanged from across a crowded train. The messages posted to this site are very often of people trying to reach out to someone they noticed, ever briefly, on the subway. The odds of finding the person they are trying to connect with are slight, but every day countless people make the attempt. A trip to Marker’s newest exhibition goes far toward explaining why.
PASSENGERS is on view at Peter Blum Gallery, New York through June 4, 2011. Take the N/R to Prince Street for Peter Blum SoHo (99 Wooster Street) or the 1 train to 28th Street for Peter Blum Chelsea (526 West 29th Street).