The Profound Loneliness of New York Subway Platforms

In the first months after moving to New York City in 2008, Israeli-born photographer Natan Dvir liked to time how long he could stare at fellow subway passengers before one of them made eye contact. Whether reading a book, listening to music, or simply staring into space, each of the passengers seemed to be in their own world. Minutes would go by, sometimes entire train rides, before someone accidentally met Dvir’s glance.

“It just felt so sad,” Dvir says. “In Israel, if you walk down the street you’re going to make eye contact with someone in 10 seconds. Everybody looks at everyone. When I’m in a traffic jam, I’m looking into everybody else’s cars, and they’re looking into mine. If someone isn’t looking at you, if they’re avoiding you, that means something’s wrong.”

That experience of feeling alone while surrounded by other people is the subject of Dvir’s photography series Platforms. Each extra-wide format image captures that quintessential New York tableau: a group of strangers standing on a subway platform, waiting for the next train. To get the shot, Dvir stands on the opposite platform, shooting across the tracks. Underground support columns naturally divide the images into triptychs reminiscent of a film strip or contact sheet. After capturing an image with a medium-format DSLR, Dvir crops off the top and bottom to create a panorama.

Dvir originally focused on making sure the triptychs were correctly proportioned. But he soon became more interested in how the subway passengers found creative ways of pretending they were alone. “Unless they’re with friends or family, everyone is in their own bubble,” he says. “No one is interacting with anyone else.”

That goes for Dvir as well—for the most part, New Yorkers simply ignored the odd 6-foot 5-inch man photographing them. If they asked what he was doing, he explained he was making an art project. Not everyone reacted with equanimity; one image in the series captures a man flipping Dvir off. For the photographer, though, even a negative reaction felt more natural than the typical New Yorker’s studied nonchalance.

“American society steers away from conflict,” he observes. “It’s part of the culture, I think. But avoiding conflict is avoiding contact.”

Natan Dvir’s Platforms series is on view until March 1 at Blue Sky in Portland and will be featured at Belgrade Photo Month in May.

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