The Commute

September 18, 2013  •  2 Comments
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

Across the street from my house run railroad tracks for the Metra Rock Island line, a commuter railroad that connects Chicago to the south and west suburbs.  I've lived at the same address for thirteen years and have generally not paid much attention to the trains as they rumble by, but one day something caught my eye.  

At the point they pass by our house, the trains are about a mile from the station.  In the soft light I saw the faces of commuters standing in the vestibule.  They are standing there so they can be the first off the train, either so they won't have to fight the crowd, or can get in to work faster, or maybe they're just Type A personalities.

I suddenly noticed that the windows of the train acted as perfect frames for these faces, that a diverse range of human expression was on display, and the early morning front light (from the east, the same direction the windows face) was often (although not always) good.  I set up a tripod and telephoto lens.  My wife got me a train schedule so I could anticipate the arrival of the next train.  The trains go by at a pretty good clip, so I had to find the right combination of lens, shutter speed, exposure, and ISO and practice my timing.  Then I did what my teacher Sam Abell advised: "compose and wait".  


How it finished is not what I expected when I started.  

What I expected to see was a variety of faces, mostly downcast (that must be my own projection of what it feels like to be going into work), and that would be it.  What I found instead surprised me:

  • Many people would stand in the same place, day after day 
  • They were feeling a variety of emotions (happy, worried, animated, tired, pensive) or doing different things (talking, sleeping, reading, checking messages on smartphones) but on different days the same people seemed to be feeling or doing the same thing, day after day
  • I felt that I could almost read their expressions.  When we are alone with our thoughts, our faces are more of an open book. 

We are indeed creatures of habit.  From where we stand on a train, to whether we are happy or sad to some degree is a habit.  And in this case this tendency is further reinforced by the structure of the commute: we must go to work every day at the same place, at the same time.  We surround ourselves with the same comforts every day, whether they be a cup of coffee, a book, an iPhone, other friends, or our own thoughts.  These things help us get through the day because, once adopted, they simplify life.  But they also can become a self-reinforcing ecosystem that puts us into a rut of existence.  

When I look at these pictures I am reminded of Walker Evans' book of candid subway portraits Many Are Called.  In the introduction, Luc Sante wrote, "time spent commuting is a hiatus from social can take off the face you wear for the benefit of others."  In these unguarded moments we may gain some insight into what one's true nature is.

When I saw the same people doing the same thing, day after day, I realized that by placing their pictures in grids they could be subjects in a typology, which is "a study or systematic classification of types that have characteristics or traits in common".  Furthermore, while individuals could be compared to themselves on different days, they could also be compared with each other, resulting in a "typology of typologies".  

What was required in making these pictures was different from that needed to make a formal portrait or landscape, where you set everything up and try to control as many of the variables as possible.  Instead this was a lot more like street photography, where you don't know what you are going to see when you head out the door.  The scene, composition and exposure was selected once; I then had to discover the themes, patterns and variations.  The result for me has been a satisfying exploration of the human condition.

More pictures from this series can be see here.


Rick Alfaro(non-registered)
Terrific work.
Matthew John Rice(non-registered)

This collection is absolutely amazing. Congratulations!
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