UNLIMITED METROCARD: Gretchen Robinette’s Candid NYC subway Photographs

All images by Gretchen Robinette. Used with permission.

Photographer Gretchen Robinette has been featured many times on this site before. She’s a photojournalist here in NYC and has work that regularly appears in Gothamist and many other local fixtures–especially in the concert scene. While it’s really easy to fall in love with her work, Gretchen‘s best stuff is her personal projects; as is the case with many artists.

On April 17th, the work from her Unlimited Metrocard series will be on debut at Max Fish Bar and Art Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side. The series encompasses Gretchen’s street photography images taken on the New York Subway. All of the work was done with her iPhone, and shows off how she was able to capture images of people with some of them looking straight at her in full awareness.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Gretchen: I used to draw constantly, until I took my first B&W film class in high school, then I discovered photography was closer to what I had always wanted to achieve with drawing but never could, so I quit drawing completely and spent all my time shooting B&W film and developing prints. So much that, I got all F’s in every subject except photography because it was the only class I went to, until they kicked me out. So it took me some years to make all that up, and eventually go to college for Photojournalism. But most of my learning came from building darkrooms at home, shooting film, and looking at photography books at the library.

I’m so terrible at math, the only way I could learn all the apertures and shutter speeds in order was writing them on my hands in permanent marker every day until I memorized them. Then when it became time to embrace digital, I learned the basics from Strobist.com and now I rarely shoot film unless it’s for personal stuff.

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Phoblographer: What made you want to get into street photography?

Gretchen: Back in the library days, I became obsessed with Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Sally Mann, who are more considered documentary than street photographers. I tried to shoot on the street for a while, but was wasn’t very good at it since I was so shy, and I got yelled at and chased down a few times in New York City when I was a teenager which was scary. So I have always been trying to get passed my fear of shooting on the street. Still working on it.

Phoblographer: For years, you’ve been shooting candids of people on the NYC Subway; how do you feel the transit form lends itself well to the art form?

Gretchen: Shooting on the subway is really just street photography on a moving train, with multiple train lines and stops, instead of sidewalks and neighborhoods. The subway has a distinct feel of different neighborhoods depending on which line you are on and where, and almost anything can happen down there. The underground subway is like its own world, and you can ride it anywhere at any hour, and never run out of fascinating people to see.

Commuters on the New York City Subway, NY, NY

Commuters on the New York City Subway, NY, NY

Phoblographer: What attracts you to your subjects? It seems like your photos document people from all walks of life.

Gretchen: Many of my photos are taken on the J train, as I live off that line, but I don’t focus on any one type of person or area. If I go out specifically to shoot on the train, I rarely ever get anything good. The better ones come when I just come across people when I’m already on my way somewhere. I started shooting couples for a bit, because I appreciate the innocence of it; I don’t know their story and never will, but for that moment, no one else mattered to them. Even if their relationship is fleeting, they had the lack of self sensor to be affectionate in front of so many strangers and not give a shit, and something about that is beautiful to me.

This gave me a sort of focus for the shots, and like a favorite number, if you narrow your focus, you kind of start seeing it everywhere.

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Phoblographer: Some of your work features the people looking directly into your camera. Has anyone ever given you any sort of grief for photographing them? How have you recovered?

Gretchen: Most of the time, when it appears people are looking directly at me, I think they are actually just looking through me. We can’t help but look around in all directions on the train, and sometimes we are not really staring at someone, just gazing in their direction. I’m usually not making eye contact when I shoot on the train, because the energy exchange of direct eye contact is so powerful, it creates a connection between people, which alters the situation. I don’t want to interrupt or change anyone. With my professional portraiture, I’m the exact opposite – that’s all about connecting with a subject and drawing that energy out of them. But surprisingly enough, I’ve only been noticed or called out maybe two times in 3 years.

I never photograph anyone to make fun of them or make them look bad, and maybe because my intentions are good, that energy is projected, so no one feels suspicious. Maybe that sounds hokey, but I have no other explanation for why I haven’t really pissed anyone off before. Once a girl noticed me taking her photo and decided to in turn take multiple photos of me with her flash on, so I just stood there and let her and we didn’t say anything. But I’ve never once been yelled at.

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Phoblographer: You’ve been doing a lot of this with your iPhone and a while ago you told me that you’ve been trying to do it very discreetly. So how often do you manage to get the shot vs losing it?

Gretchen: I tried using different cameras and lenses for shooting on the train, but i found the iPhone worked best because the focal length is a bit wider than a normal 50mm so it makes it easy, doesn’t attract attention, and is always in my hand. And with the same focal length, it’s easier to predict the results, and creates a visual unity. With practice, I mostly shoot without looking thru the screen, which is basically street style of “shooting from the hip” that I first saw from Robert Frank.

But this method fails often. I have the 5s iPhone, and it doesn’t auto focus very fast or will throw itself completely out of focus often, so I lose hundreds of shots due to camera phone error; I also occasionally chop off people’s heads when I frame this way, so I end up taking hundreds of shots over time just to get a handful of ones that I might actually use.

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Phoblographer: What’s the goal for this project? It was on Gothamist before and now you’re putting it into a gallery. What’s next, a book?

Gretchen: I had been shooting these for a year or two as a personal project, just something photo related to do while stuck on the train every day to post on Instagram, when Gothamist (which I was already shooting events and stuff for) asked me to shoot subway “style” just by coincidence without knowing I had been shooting these. So for them, I went out and specifically shot people focusing on their “style” only, which was extremely hard for me to do with the same approach I had already been doing, so most of those didn’t come out well. Then I just felt like it was time to be done, and stopped a few months ago. I started getting tired of people tagging me on Instagram every time a photo on the subway was posted, and sort of lost interest in it.

Originally, I had planned on making a small book of the photos, but decided it was best to put the project away for a while and revisit it later. Then the owner at Max Fish asked me to have a show of the photos there, and I realized if they were to be displayed on walls anywhere, Max Fish was the most appropriate space for them so that’s where about 70 of them will be starting April 17, printed on this metallic paper that I love. Still debating on the final details of the book, mostly an affordable way to publish it. Any interested book publishers hit me up!

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Commuters on the New York City Subway, NY, NY

Commuters on the New York City Subway, NY, NY

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