Photography: Picturing People: Lesson 2



The expansion of urban centers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided artists with an inexhaustible source of inspiration: city life. Scenes of café life and pedestrian culture became popular subject matter, and photographers, like painters, were interested in capturing this emerging urban identity. Armed with handheld cameras, “street photographers," who were often city dwellers themselves, sought to capture images of everyday people in candid moments of daily life. Unposed everyday behavior is central to the two series of photographs discussed in this lesson: Subway Portraits, by Walker Evans, and Heads, by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Neither Evans nor diCorcia, however, present narrative scenes. Instead, as the titles imply, they offer the viewer portraits of anonymous individuals.


  • Students will consider conventions of portraiture, such as pose, expression, and gaze.
  • Students will consider how portraiture relates to identity.
  • Through comparison, students will consider the importance of composition and framing.


  • Ask your students to reflect on photographs taken when the subject of the image was unaware of the camera. Based on their experience, how might these photographs differ from ones for which the subjects were consciously posing? How does the behavior of the photographer change when he or she is taking a clandestine photograph? How does the relationship between the photographer and subject change?
  • Ask your students to explain portraiture or to revisit their definitions of portraiture from Lesson One.
  • Invite your students to define the word identity. What are the different factors that contribute to someone’s identity? Ask them to consider how the way someone looks—their dress, facial expression, body language, and skin color, for example—may or may not reflect their identity.
  • Divide your students into pairs or small groups. Give each group a section or all of a newspaper. Ask them to choose three images of people: one they think is posed, one that seems unposed, and, if possible, one they are not entirely sure about. While sharing everyone’s findings, ask a member of each group to explain their reasoning. How did they know people were posed? Who did the posing, the people in the picture or the photographer? When and why did they question whether or not people were aware of the camera?



Walker Evans: Subway Portrait, gelatin silver print, 176×191 mm, 1938–41 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkWalker Evans: Subway Portrait, gelatin silver print, 176×191 mm, 1938–41 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Walker Evans: Subway Portrait, gelatin silver print, 170×127 mm, 1938–41 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkWalker Evans: Subway Portrait, gelatin silver print, 186×200 mm, 1938–41 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Show your students images of two photographs from the series Subway Portraits, by Walker Evans, without telling them the series title right away. Ask your students to compare the two photographs as a class or in small groups. What can they determine about these people? What are they doing? What are their relationships, if any, to one another? Where might they be? Based on their dress and the setting, when might these photographs have been taken? Are the subjects posing for the camera?

Like Dorothea Lange, Evans was employed by the Farm Services Administration (FSA) in the 1930s to document Depression-era conditions in the United States. Evans, however, was less interested in a strict social agenda. Instead, he explored modern experience itself, particularly its aspects of disjunction and fragmentation, and was fascinated by vernacular photography.

  • Share the title of the series with your students. As a class, consider how subways both shape modern life and are a product of it. Based on their observations about the setting and figures and their relationships to one another, ask your students to consider how Evans’s Subway Portraits capture aspects of modern, urban experience.

In 1938 Evans descended underground to photograph subway passengers. Interested in capturing the everyday routines of anonymous people, Evans wanted to catch his subjects unaware. “The guard is down in the subway, even more than when in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors). People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway." [Walker Evans, quoted in Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 170–71.] Evans solicited the company of his friend, the photographer Helen Levitt, convinced that his activities would be less noticeable if someone accompanied him. In order to create his clandestine photographs, he orchestrated a way of taking photographs “undercover." He painted the shiny chrome of his 35 mm camera black and hid it under his coat so that the camera lens surreptitiously peeked out between two buttons. He attached a cable release to the shutter, snaking it up his right shoulder and down his sleeve to his hand, so he could take photographs without touching the camera. A flash would have given him away, so Evans set his shutter speed as low as possible in order to capture an image in the dimmer light available.

  • After sharing this information with your students, ask them to look again at the photographs. Do the subway passengers seem to have let their guards down? Why or why not? How might they look different if they had been aware of the camera?
  • How do Evans’s photographs adhere to or deviate from your students’ ideas of portraiture? Have your students debate whether or not Evans’s photographs emphasize or reduce the individuality of his sitters.


Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Head #10, chromogenic color print, 122×152 mm, 2007; printed by Pascal Dangin (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Philip-Lorca diCorcia, courtesy of the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkPhilip-Lorca diCorcia: Head #10, chromogenic color print, 122×152 mm, 2007; printed by Pascal Dangin (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Philip-Lorca diCorcia, courtesy of the artist, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Now ask your students to look at Head #10, by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Ask them to write a short monologue in the voice of the person pictured, considering all the information available to them in the photograph. Collect and shuffle the monologues, then distribute one to every student. Ask all or some of your students to read the one they have aloud. What do the different monologues have in common? What aspects of the monologues were inspired by the subject’s body language, facial expression, and dress in the photograph? How did the setting, color, and lighting influence your students’ writing?
  • Share the title of the photograph with your students and ask them to consider its meaning. What might the nondescript title and number imply?
  • Ask your students to compare Head #10 with Evans’s Subway Portraits. What similarities and differences do they see? Unlike Evans’s smaller black-and-white gelatin silver prints, diCorcia’s photograph is a chromogenic color print measuring four feet by five feet. Ask your students how this difference in color and scale might impact the viewer’s experience.

This photograph is part of diCorcia’s Heads series, a project in which he photographed people in New York City’s Times Square. Among his other pursuits, diCorcia is a prolific photographer who plays with assumptions about the veracity of documentary, snapshot, and street photography. His photographs are often the result of staged situations. To create this image, diCorcia rigged a powerful strobe light to a scaffold high above the street. He activated the strobe by radio signal and captured unwitting pedestrians in a flash of light, using a 500 mm zoom lens from over twenty feet away. A remarkable aspect of this carefully planned process is that the strobe was imperceptible—the photographs were taken in broad daylight. The resulting figures emerge from inky darkness, spotlighted and haloed. Although they were taken from a distance, diCorcia’s portraits of strangers are surprisingly intimate. Over the course of two years, diCorcia took more than four thousand of these photographs, then chose only seventeen photographs for the series.

  • Ask your students how knowing about diCorcia’s process informs their view of Head #10.
  • Ask your students whether or not the identity of the person pictured in Head #10 is communicated through the photograph. DiCorcia believes that, even unposed, people often “present themselves as clichés of what they should be." [Philip-Lorca diCorcia, quoted in Tim Griffin, “Private Eye: Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia Takes the People of Times Square as his Subject," Time Out New York, September 6–13, 2001, 113.] Share this information with your students. After collectively defining the word cliché, ask them to respond to diCorcia’s statement. What might he mean? How does this concept relate to their ideas about identity? How does diCorcia’s belief compare with Evans’s observation that people rarely let their guard down?
  • Ask your students to compare the approaches taken by Evans and diCorcia. How are their processes critical to their results? What do your students think about the omission of crowds in both series? What are some similarities between the two scenes, captured sixty years apart? How are the scenes different?


1. Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and diCorcia

The composition and dramatic lighting of diCorcia’s Heads series is reminiscent of works by the painters Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Caravaggio (c. 1571–1610). Like diCorcia, these two artists used everyday people as models for and subjects of their portraits. Ask your students to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History to learn more about paintings by these artists. For an in-depth comparison, send your students on a Web Quest to the Web site for Rembrandt Caravaggio, a joint exhibition by the Rijksmuseum and van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Using their observations and extended research, ask your students to compare diCorcia’s photograph with portraits they have selected by Rembrandt and Caravaggio. What similarities and differences have they discovered between the images regarding subject, composition, lighting, and the intentions of the artists?

2. Street Photography and the First Amendment

Street photography often relies on the candid quality of images of people caught unaware by the camera. Artists who have made work from the unauthorized use of images of people, such as diCorcia and Barbara Kruger, are protected in the United States by the First Amendment, and they have won critical cases in New York State Supreme Court. When asked why he did not solicit the consent of his subjects, diCorcia explained that he had understood his actions to be legal. Most importantly, “There is no way the images could have been made with the knowledge and cooperation of the subjects," he stated. “The mutual exclusivity, that conflict or tension, is part of what gives the work whatever quality it has." Countering claims of an individual’s right to privacy, diCorcia’s advocates argued that the practice of street photography is an established form of artistic expression and cultural heritage. Moreover, as art, such work falls outside the guidelines of commercial use of unauthorized images of a person’s likeness. However, as one judge ruled, “Even while recognizing art as exempt from the reach of New York’s privacy laws, the problem of sorting out what may or may not legally be art remains a difficult one." [Quoted in Philip Gefter, “The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photograph", New York Times, March 19, 2006.]

Ask your students to share their opinions about these issues and diCorcia’s statement. How do camera phones and online posting sites complicate these matters even further?

3. Rise of the Modern City

Street photography is part of a larger modern concern with urban identity. Refer to the lesson Rise of the Modern City in Modern Art and Ideas 2: Fauvism and Expressionism, and with your students explore how artists at the turn of the twentieth century depicted people on the street during the major expansion of such European cities as Paris and Dresden.

4. Conceptual Links

Subway Portraits and Heads are made up of serial images produced within a set of limitations. Evans’s and diCorcia’s strategies foreshadow and echo, respectively, the concerns of Conceptual art, in which the idea presented takes precedence over the form of the finished product. Modern Art and Ideas 8: Minimalism and Conceptualism explores these connections.

Go to Lesson 3: Politicians →

GROVE ART ONLINE: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics, discussed in this lesson.

Photography: Picturing People