6sqft’s series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, Hannah La Follette Ryan shares photos from her “Subway Hands” Instagram account. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
While many street photographers have been inspired by straphangers over the years, Massachusetts- born Hannah La Follette Ryan has taken a very different approach to subway photography: focusing on riders’ hands. Her viral Instagram account, “Subway Hands,” is closing in on 20,000 followers and features nearly 1,000 photos, all shot on her iPhone, of the impossibly varied things people do with their hands on the NYC subway.
When did you move to New York, and how long after did you start “Subway Hands”?
I moved to New York six months after I graduated college in 2014. I started “Subway Hands” pretty much instantly, within a month of moving. I think that was largely because I arrived in New York and was just so excited and overwhelmed simultaneously by becoming a New Yorker that I was looking around the city with wide eyes and found myself on the subway a lot because I’m a nanny and I’m always commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I found myself people watching a lot and on the subway noticing how you see every kind of person and every energy represented. I was very struck by how expressive that space is.
What inspired you to start taking photos of hands on the subway?
New York as a whole. When I was in an art history class in college I saw photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands that were taken by Alfred Stieglitz. They’re these really expressive portraits of just her hands. They’re really elegant. I was struck by how they say more than I imagined a portrait of her face might say, and that definitely burned into my subconscious.
Have you always been interested in photographing hands?
When I was younger, I always held my grandfather’s hand. He just had these hands that totally hinted at the life he’d lived. When you see an older person’s hands you see experience and memories lived. I remember taking a picture of his hands a long time ago that I really liked, but I found that when I was on the train I was so used to kind of looking at faces and thinking about which faces are worth photographing and which ones are unremarkable. When I was on the train, I found myself people watching and looking at how people use their hands as almost fidget toys. Instead of scrutinizing someone’s face and how they presented themselves more traditionally I was just looking very zoomed in on a part of their body they might not give all that much thought to and I found I was able to present a different slice of life by focusing on people’s hands.
What is it you love so much about hands on the subway in particular?
I think that what I am drawn to about hands on the subway, in particular, is the idea that we’re all suspended – there’s something about a space where people are required to sit and stand idly for a certain amount of time; it’s a kind of unusual social contract. You just have all these people who are in limbo. That’s what it means to be on the subway. Everyone has to stop what they’re doing and travel together from point to point, and you just notice how we all have this thing in common on the subway car and we’re all enduring MTA delays together but other than that we don’t have that much in common and I find that the kind of divisions and groupings of random New Yorkers is really compelling to me.
I do notice hands in general for sure. I definitely have an appreciation for expressive hands, but it’s expressive hands and what people do when they are less idle that I find the most interesting. I think that on a subway car people retreat into their owns heads in a way that is really conducive to taking honest pictures, which is obviously harder to find walking around the city.
I also am inspired by New York street photographers in general. I love seeing other photos that people take on the subway. Walker Evans’ portraits of subway riders I find totally fascinating.
Do you ask your subjects before you take their photos?
When I first started I would ask people [permission to have their photo taken] and then I quickly caught on to how weird it sounds to have a stranger ask you to take a picture of your hands. I would explain the project and by the time all that had happened I found the naturalism of the pose or whatever it was about the hands I wanted to photograph in the first place had disappeared. So, I never ask anymore.
I think that a lot of people have no idea that I’m taking the pictures, but sometimes people do, sometimes I’ll get caught doing it and I’ll take the time to explain the project because it can be unnerving for people to have their photo taken on the subway, and I feel I can give them reassurance. I take a lot of pictures of people’s hands on the subway, so every once in awhile people will notice I’m hovering. Because I’m not pointing a camera at their face it can be confusing.
People often break subway etiquette norms with their feet, but how about their hands?
More people than you would think clip their nails on the subway; more people than you would think pick their nose on the subway. I think there’s a funky mix of public and private on the subway. Many of us are on the trains every day multiple times a day and you get pretty comfortable with that, but you’re also always with different people and I find that you find people who are very at home on the train for that reason.
What else do you photograph?
I photograph a lot of things. I have so many projects. I photograph people, I photograph strangers, I photograph friends. I definitely take most of my pictures of people.
Do you prefer photographing in the old or new cars?
The new. The lighting on the new subways is much easier to work with, but I love the feel of the old trains, and when the lighting works on the old trains, those are some of my favorite pictures. But the lighting on the old trains is certainly more challenging.
Do you have a favorite train line?
I’m very partial to the 2 train. I love the new 2 trains. There are lots of people on them for subway hands-ing and the light is nice. I love the way that it goes from underground to above ground. I work largely off the A and C lines, although it breaks my heart regularly because it’s often delayed.
Do you think straphangers become more photogenic when the subway is delayed?
Yeah. I think that you can see and photograph that energy for sure. People get pretty expressive in those moments and oftentimes retreat even more into their heads, into their inner spaces
What other subway photographers and Instagram accounts inspire you?
Michael Wolf’s painterly photos on the Tokyo subway are some of my favorite train pictures. The subway work of Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Christophe Agou is brilliant. I pull inspiration from all over. I just finished Insomniac City by Bill Hayes, a love letter to his late partner Oliver Sacks and New York City, which immediately made me want to walk around the city with my camera. I’ve learned a lot from the tenderness and devotion of Andre Wagner’s street photography. Pre-Subway Hands I was a big reader on the train and I think the @subwaybookreview account is lovely. I always look to see what other people are reading. Then again, I’m a nosy subway rider.
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All photographs © Hannah La Follette Ryan