Hannah Minzloff's camera looks like a robot. The Russian-made LOMO Horizon is smooth and bulky, with a convex viewfinder on top that looks like the Honda robot ASIMO's head. The panoramic camera has shot over 400 black-and-white images of subways and their travellers in Toronto, Montreal, London, Paris, Munich and Barcelona. Twenty of those images make up Minzloff's exhibition, Underground, which debuted at Toronto's Contact photography festival in May, in a working subway car on the Yonge-University Line. The exhibition opens in Halifax October 1.
At ViewPoint Gallery on Barrington, Minzloff shows off some of the Underground prints and the LOMO culprit behind them. She describes her camera as heavy, noisy and basic. It shoots 120 degrees with a panning lens that sounds like the grinding plastic gears of an old wind-up toy. The sound is hardly subtle, and the photos show a wonderful mix of curious and indifferent looks.
"I actually never looked through the lens," says Minzloff who studied photography in Montreal. "So people were looking at the camera and not me."
Shot at half-second exposures (the camera only has two settings), the photos have a fluid motion-blur that evokes the movement of the subway cars in an immediately tangible way.
"If you have a seven-dollar camera or a $7,000 camera, if you have a good eye it really doesn't matter what equipment you're using," says Minzloff. "A Hassleblad is just as simple as this ---it's just a box with a lens on it. It just happens to be a really expensive piece of glass."
"Lomography" describes the shoot-from-the-hip approach many LOMO users take with their photos. "I was literally shooting from the belly button," laughs Minzloff, explaining how she had to brace the camera while using such slow speeds.
The inspiration behind the project came in part from a long-time fascination with the architecture of subways and subway stations. "Toronto has these really palatial stations, compared to London where they're literally a round hole for the round car to go through," she says. "When you live in a big city your personal space is constantly being squeezed and pressed into a very small amount, so we build these walls around ourselves with all sorts of methods by not making eye contact."
The photos of sleeping commuters and subway cars packed with preoccupied travellers show that sense of isolation in the tubes. The images are haunting, but immediately familiar. Brightly lit cars and lone passengers contrast the long dark tunnels and tightly packed, rush-hour bodies.
"You'd think it'd be a much more social experience," says Minzloff. "And although it's communal and it's the same in so many cities, it's very, very lonely."
"I've never seen so many iPods as I have in London," she adds. "From the thinnest ones stuck in a breast-coat pocket to the really heavy-duty ones. You saw the little white cords sticking out of everyone's coats."
Part of the commuter experience that Minzloff couldn't capture in her photos was the multitude of sounds in each different subway. Growing up in Montreal, she fondly recalls the unique tones of the Metro trains there. Minzloff says each city's subway was also characterized by the sounds the people did and didn't make. Silence was usually due to those little white cords.
The New York City subway is one stop Minzloff wished she could have included, but was thwarted by seven-and-a-half months of pregnancy. For a time, Minzloff had a NYC subway token tucked away in her wallet, long after the system stopped using them. While she didn't carry it with her to Europe, she collected plenty of transit proofs while shooting Underground.
"I had an Oyster card from London, stubs from Paris and tickets from everywhere else. I was wondering if I should be incorporating them in the exhibit, but I decided that was a personal memento, and that was another exhibition---photographing all the ticket stubs," she laughs.
Undergroundwill be shown in Halifax from October 1 to November 15 as part of the photography festival Photopolis. In the absence of an underground to call our own, the photos will be shown on a Metro Transit bus. The exhibition will take over all the ad space inside, with three pieces outside letting people know they should "get on the bus." Which bus it is remains to be seen, but Minzloff says she'll be posting on her site which line number the exhibit will be on each day.
She likes the idea of art co-opting ad space, an otherwise costly venture made possible by a presentation grant from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage.
The exhibition will give Haligonians the surreal experience of riding the bus, and seeing what they might look like if they were doing the same thing underground--- business as usual, just a bit deeper.
Minzloff laughs, talking about Underground's opening party. "One of my friends suggested I have it catered by Subway."