“They Feel Like a Time Capsule”: Portraits of New York Commuters, Pre-Pandemic

A little girl grips her pigtails as she hops off the last step in the staircase. An older man chews a banana as he shuffles towards the exit. Another man counts a stack of dollar bills as he strides down the hall. Each of these everyday people is caught mid-motion and bathed in a soft, fuchsia light in David Rothenberg’s Roosevelt Station (Perimeter Editions, 2021). 

Roosevelt Station (Perimeter Editions, 2021)

The book draws from Rothenberg’s series of photographs of passersby made between 2019 and March 2020 at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street train stop in Queens, New York, where the artist Tom Patti’s 2004 glass installation “Night Passage” fills the station during the daytime with dramatic, colored light. Despite its improvisatory premise, Roosevelt Station’s crisply cropped, high-focus photos present a thoughtful study of the solitary traveler’s mind and movements. 

Roosevelt Station (Perimeter Editions, 2021)
Roosevelt Station (Perimeter Editions, 2021)

Rothenberg’s recent projects have all centered on the character of Queens, from its unexpected supermarket still lifes to shots of planes’ bellies as they descend to the nearby La Guardia airport. And while this is the photographer’s first series dedicated explicitly to people and their gestures — each photo is a sort of frozen, full-body portrait of its subject — he hasn’t lost his knack for tight but inventive compositions. In Roosevelt Station, floor and wall tiles, glass windows, metal railings, stair steps, and even the boxy suitcases and bags that commuters carry form coordinates and lines that frame the action of his pictures. Together with the unexpected choreography of the passengers’ bodies, Rothenberg’s pictures buzz with a lively visual rhythm. 

Rothenberg’s savvy timing also manages to record, in a flash, an uncanny sense of his subject’s psychology. Unaware of the photographer’s presence, people are immersed in their inner worlds. As David Campany points out in the book’s essay, Walker Evans — who made his own undercover train portraits between 1938 and 1941 — once called the subway the “dream location for any portrait photographer weary of the studio and the horrors of vanity.” Looking at Rothenberg’s pictures today, the subway station seems to represent another sort of ‘dream location,’ one in which the threat of close bodies and contagion simply doesn’t exist. 

Roosevelt Station (Perimeter Editions, 2021)

Before the pandemic, the subway was New York’s most popular mode of transit, but with the coronavirus’s heavy toll in Queens and so many other areas, ridership has slumped. “They feel like a time capsule of the moment just before the pandemic began to devastate the nearby communities of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona,” Rothenberg said of his photographs in an email to Hyperallergic. “I think many people […] will view the photographs with nostalgia and recognize the loss of this shared experience that we might have taken for granted. When I think of the countless strangers I photographed over that span of a year, I increasingly wonder where they are now.” It’s an impossible question to answer, but Roosevelt Station gives us a sense of where they were — if only for a fleeting, glowing moment — then.

Roosevelt Station by David Rothenberg is available online through Perimeter Books.

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