Voyeurism, Fantasy and the Anonymous Subway Photographer

A new website called Tubecrush.net gives women the opportunity to photograph handsome guys they come across on the London underground. Photographs are usually taken with a mobile phone camera allowing the photographer to remain anonymous and undiscovered in the act of photographing. Tubecrush then categorizes these photographs in groups which tend to focus or relate to parts of the body: legs, arms, hair, twinkle etc. This visual fragmentation of the body allows the user to browse images according their personal taste and interests. Visitors to the website can then rate the attractiveness of the men in the photograph. Tubecrush thus represents a complete reversal from the numerous websites such as ratemyexgf.com which habitually objectify and fetishize the female body. Here, instead, it is the male body that is photographed, categorized, archived, evaluated and rated, and because of that, it has become a sensation in London’s gay community. The site has proved to be so popular that, at the time of writing, it can’t be accessed due to a server overload (you might have to wait a few days before you can access it).

Walker Evans, Subway Portraits

Tubecrush and its anonymous photographers are utilizing a visual strategy that has long been established in the history of photography. The American photographer Walker Evans photographed his acclaimed series Subway Portraits as early as the 1930s and 40s. Similar to the Tubecrush photographers, Evans hid his camera in his jacket so that he could operate anonymously. Evans’ series is symbolic for the voyeuristic potential of the photographic apparatus. Here the voyeur thrives on the opportunity to photograph strangers in an enclosed environment. In other words, the proximity to fellow passengers on the Tube or Subway allows the voyeur to indulge in an activity that in other parts of the city would be impossible to perform. The underground is the voyeur’s breathing ground.

Bruce Davidson, Subway, 1980s

Numerous photographers stepped into Evans’ path. Bruce Davidson’s gritty, rough and raw photographs depict New York’s subway system in the 1980s. It was common for people to dress down, so not to attract unwanted attention, while riding the subway in the pre-Giuliani and pre-zero-tolerance era. While Evans’ subjects appear to ride the subway with pride and a sense of purpose, Davidson’s subjects, on the other hand, appear lost and alienated in a sea of urban grime. People went on the subway because they had to, not because they wanted to. The transition from Evans to Davidson depicts the decline of America’s urban centres induced by the widening gap between the rich and poor. Davidson’s pitiless images are more representative of a brutal turf war than they are a depiction of a crawling transport network.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Circle Line, 2000

The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans used the cramped conditions on London’s tube network to photograph strangers up-close. Tillmans appears to take advantage of passengers holding on to handles as he photographs them in uncompromising positions. In one photograph he photographs the clean shaven armpit of a female passenger. By completely decontextualizing the armpit, Tillmans creates a visual metaphor to a far more intimate maybe even sexual encounter with the stranger. Tillmans’ photographs are thus venturing on the territory explored by Tubecrush: that the subjects depicted are representative of a fantasy.

Chris Marker, PASSENGERS: Untitled # 200, 2008-2010

For the tireless French filmmaker and artist Chris Marker (born 1921), the Metro in Paris also presents an opportunity to explore a fantastical theme via the medium photography. In photographs that appear to be taken with a low-fi digital camera, he juxtaposes a passengers facial expression or bodily position with renown works of art. For Marker, beauty and the uncanny can be found in the most unexpected places: a woman nursing a child, a girl listening to her ipod, a woman folding her hands like the Mona Lisa. With several references to paintings, it is not surprising that most of Marker’s subjects are women. The Western tradition of associating the female subject in art with beauty, vanity, mysteriousness is doubly emphasized in Marker’s work.

At first sight, Tubecrush similarly appears to tap into traditions of representation inherited by Western painting. This becomes apparent in the photograph that received the most ratings on Tubecrush. It shows a man whose face is barely reflected in the window of the tube car. Like in the Caravaggio’s Narcissus he indulges in the beauty of his own reflection. Yet on closer inspection the man’s gaze is not as much directed at himself at is directed into the darkness of the tunnel. Yet the reason why this photograph received the most ratings and the most attention is, I believe, based on the fantasy that maybe, in the faint reflection of the window, he is looking directly at the photographer taking the picture and, by extension, at the viewer.

Chris Marker: Passengers is available as a book.

For more on this topic, please read Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

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4 thoughts on “Voyeurism, Fantasy and the Anonymous Subway Photographer

  1. I think you are romantising the blunt reality: It is a website made by hormonal guys who have nothing better to do than lust over pictures of what they consider “hot” guys, acting as if gods among men, not taking into account the rights or emotions of the unsuspected London citizens – as well as promoting weird and stalkish behaviour.

  2. An interesting take on the phenomenon, though you’d be wrong to assume that the majority of folks who peruse or submit to said site are heterosexual women. Just as the article comments on the voyuerism apparent in the kind of art that sexualizes the female body, the same aesthetic appears in the kinds of photographs that appear on TubeCrush – The eye is drawn to the erogenous male rather than a general (masculine) aesthetic, implying a homosexual male gaze.

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