Each day in major cities, millions of people can be found passing within inches of each other — on sidewalks, in subway stations, public squares — but detached from the present moment. I’ll often find myself surrounded by people on the subway, staring into the middle distance thinking more about point A or B, than the line I’m taking to get there.
Maybe that’s why Adam Magyar’s work is so impactful. Using eye-grabbing photographic techniques, he stretches the fleeting moments spent in these interstitial spaces into sprawling, meditative strips of film and video. Even though waiting for the train can feel like an eternity, making it look like one is difficult. It actually allows us to contemplate a place many of us endure on our way to more interesting things.
Having taken the subway to get to his current exhibition up at Julie Saul Gallery in NYC, I was shaken into realizing that, indeed, the actual experience of my journey had been scrubbed from my memory along the way.
“These parts of our lives just drop out from our days,” Magyar told me in an interview. “I would like people to think and feel that life is happening, because we tend to forget about it.”
My moment of self-reflection is really what Magyar’s images are about. His body of work is built on related-but-distinct techniques and concepts that trick us into seeing the beauty inherent in the mundane. Squares (above), for example, is an early series consisting of what look like birds-eye views of public places, swarming with pedestrians. They’re actually made of hundreds of photos taken above sidewalks, combined into a composed commons that resemble a sort of human scatterplot.
With Urban Flow, Magyar began experimenting with the slit-scan technique that he would become famous for. Akin to using the sensor of a flatbed scanner as a camera, the technique captures an image by stacking tens of thousands of one-pixel-width images taken in a series as subjects pass before the sensor. In the gallery, the wall-spanning images sucked me into poring over every detail of these people just like the hundreds I’d passed by without a thought on my to that moment. The images here on the page are cropped to a small portion of the photo so details are discernable on the dimensions of your screen.
To pull these off, Magyar built a custom rig, a hybrid of a medium format lens and a slit scanner running on homebrew image processing software. Mounting the works on a tripod at busy street locations around the world, he translated the view you might see from a coffeeshop window into a side-scrolling survey of life and movement on city streets.
The movement of people and vehicles passing by create long (like, 8 feet wide) images, incredibly crisp but sometimes surreally distorted due to their varying speeds and the relativistic nature of the slit-scan technique. Pedestrians’ feet stretch out like skis if they’re moving slowly against the camera’s “frame rate” of 600 line scans per second, and compress out of proportion if they’re moving too slow. Parts of the frame that do not move — the background, for instance — appear as empty data, a solid streak across the entire image.
“I always see or feel what I would like to capture before I look for the technique for that, so it never starts from the technique,” says Magyar, whose work inevitably draws more questions from viewers about the techniques he used than the content of the images. Luckily, the technical side of things is intimately tied to the ideas he’s exploring.
Magyar is a highly refined tinkerer, working with at edge of technical feasibility in his images. He’s more Doc Brown than Cartier-Bresson. At a time when many people bemoan a generation lost in their phones and other gizmos, the medium of photography (a technological one) is here being used specifically to draw our attention to where it’s often lost. “[People] think about not only the technical behind it but also the metaphorical behind it. It makes them think about time and all the unprocessed data that we cannot process, but technology can process.”
Magyar’s next series, Stainless, took the scanning approach to a new level. Looking like he somehow fit a full-sized subway car filled with passengers into a studio, close inspection reveals the minute distortions of scanning photography similar to that seen in Urban Flow.
Using an ultra high-speed/high-resolution camera meant for quality control in factories — this one shooting at 6000 FPS, processed and enhanced again with painstakingly coded custom software — the images are once more created from the movement of the subjects themselves, this time a subway car. Once more, split-seconds of motion are unpacked into a complete, dramatically realized image.
But the second half of Stainless turns the principle around. Viewers are presented with a video, this time shot from point of view of the moving train at about 60 times normal speed. These are probably the most lastingly gripping of Magyar’s projects, if my willingness to stare back at the countless anonymous faces is any indication. Like a slow-motion tour of a living wax museum, the nearly half hour rides down the length of a train station blossom into an ever-flowing series of serendipitous compositions that are impossible to turn away from when seen projected at life size.
Wherever they’re shot — Berlin, Bombay, New York — few subway-goers ever notice the camera (with a notable exception of Magyar himself, seen capturing an image for the other half of the series from the platform in the Berlin video). As a person very, very, very slowly reaches for a phone, or yawns, or adjusts their hair, occasionally a pair of eyes will move glacially to lock with the viewer’s as they spot the camera speeding by, like a painting that watches back. The squealing of the brakes is elongated too at the same ratio as the film, for an uneasily droning accompaniment.
These moments are full of existential goodies to unpack, the mind racing to understand why they’re so captivating. It’s just people on a subway platform, after all — I see this literally every day. It exemplifies Magyar’s notion of bringing otherwise discarded moments into deliberate and sustained focus. In slowing down to really observe this space, one gets pulled into rapt attention at every little detail that passes molasses-like across the screen, like strolling through a cosmic waiting room between life and death.
“We still see a huge crowd of lots of people, but you can still see the individual portraits in them, lots of them, it’s just packed and loaded with these human stories,” he says. “We just don’t use this time for observing things, and we don’t necessarily have to — I’m just trying to change the perceptions of these moments, and time, and trying to make something that makes you experience some kind of being, and precious time passing in a situation that is absolutely non-existent.”
Magyar’s growing body of work is shot all over the world — Paris, Shanghai, Rome, London, Tokyo, Mumbai. As far flung as they are, it’s impossible not to sense a connective thread that goes beyond the general concept or visual approach involved. There’s something essential at work in these images, and in our response to them.
A failure to live in the moment is a common diagnosis of the modern condition. Our attention is stretched thin between countless priorities as our increasing connectedness becomes a source of ever more fragmentation, the rising number of things we pay attention to leading to ever more places where our attention fails to settle. Magyar’s work takes these moments and represents them as though captured in a jar for observation.
A grim sense of death and impermanence (which evokes the philosophy of mindfulness inherent to some spiritual practices) seems to seep from the images. These existentialist tones extend from Magyar’s own life. Before gaining notoriety as a photographer and artist, he was something of a wanderer, deliberately detached from obligations and schedules and endlessly traveling. Now, he finds himself waiting between destinations more and more as his expanding professional life piles on new obligations.
“I have a dream job, and I really love it,” he says. “[but] these days, the more time is passing the more I feel like one of those guys in my videos.”
Breaking again from his approach, if only by degree, is the latest series called Array. The video work again captures daily commuters slowed down to introspective speeds. This time, his subjects descend staircases en masse in a surreal march of the detached. Somehow, the simple flipping of axes — with subjects moving from top to bottom in the frame as opposed to horizontally — conveys a new emotional effect. There is again the sense of inevitability, and of people lost somewhere other than where they’re planting their feet. The eyes of these folks reach the camera lens even less often than before, emphasizing the sense of alienation.
Some sliver of the human condition is wrapped up in all of Magyar’s work, a call to appreciate every moment. But the work always points back at the viewer. Are you present as you watch this? Are you present as you read this? Are you ever really present? I was asking these questions as I left the gallery. That question is arguably the very answer in this work, and the photographer who’s asking you is also asking himself.
“I think art is functioning when it can trigger something in someone,” he says. “My work is my life — I don’t have work anymore — I have just one thing: that’s my life.”
Read more about Magyar’s life and technical process on Matter:
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