Review by Wayne Swanson •
At a time when finding common ground seems increasingly difficult, there is still one place to go — underground. The subway is a great equalizer, bringing together people of all ages, social and economic classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and homelands. In METRO/ New York/ London/ Paris, renowned photographer Herb Robinson captures the cacophony, vitality, and diversity to be found underground, as well as the qualities that distinguish the subway experience in three of the world’s great cities.
The New York-based Robinson is one of the original members of the Kamoinge Workshop, the photography collective founded in the early 1960s that has helped generations of African American artists hone their craft. Robinson’s early experience with street photography and his later experiments with color and abstraction all come into play in METRO. Using a surrealistic style featuring highly saturated in-your-face images, often off-kilter and blurred, Robinson puts the viewer on subway platforms and in trains with the riders. It’s an aesthetic shaped by cinema, painting and, most of all jazz. His improvisational style finds endless variations on his theme.
Robinson embraces the awkward artificial light below ground, which eliminates any sense of time of day and creates something of an alien world. In that world, we see a wide range of human experiences, attitudes, and emotions. We sense the urgency, boredom, intimacy, and lack of personal space. We feel the cramped juxtapositions of rich and poor, natives and immigrants, and we see people of all races, colors, and creeds. We also sense the distinct character of each city —the raucous energy of New York, the more sedate and stoic ambience of London, and the style and sophistication of Paris.
The presentation is in-your-face as well. The hyper-colorful images are printed large on 10 x 12-inch semigloss pages, many full-bleed across the spread. We experience the unique energy of the subway and feel as if we too are fellow riders.
Robinson’s imagery is supported by an editorial design by Eve Sandler. Longtime friends, Robinson and Sandler share an appreciation for the classic Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book The Family of Man, which provides a conceptual framework for this book. Specifically, the book adopts a strategy of pairing quotations with images. “Thematically, although our project was quite different, I saw similar humanist themes worth revisiting,” Sandler writes in the book’s introduction. But where the Family of Man generally used aspirational quotations to group images, the ones in METRO tend to be more descriptive or provide socio-political context for a given image. At times, however, I found the connections to be forced, imposing a meaning on scenes perhaps better left to viewers to interpret.
I also quibble with the layout. While it’s often a tough choice whether to start a photobook with images or essays, in this case the imagery is so strong and self-explanatory, I believe it deserved top billing. Instead, the book begins with text: acknowledgements, followed by essays by Sandler and curators LeRonn P. Brooks and Sarah L. Eckhardt. Worthy writers who provide some interesting insights, but the messaging at times has the feel of PR for the book rather than critical commentary. And where is Herb Robinson? He has written engagingly and concisely about this project, but his voice is strangely absent.
Nevertheless, the imagery tells a compelling and hopeful story. Despite the divisions and challenges tearing us apart today, METRO shows there are places where we can — and do — come together.
Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
METRO/ New York/ London/ Paris, Herb Robinson
Photographer: Herb Robinson, born Kingston, Jamaica, resides New York, USA
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. (Atglen, PA, USA, copyright 2022)
Forward: LeRonn P. Brooks, Introduction: Eve Sandler, Essay, Sarah L. Eckhardt
Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 165 images, 224 pages, 10 x 12 in., 117 photographs, printed in India, ISBN: 9780764363955
Photobook designer and editor: Eve Sandler
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.
Leave a Reply