Density in Transit

[Note: this post is not about food.  Instead, I’m letting my inner art historian/cultural critic come out!]

Lest you think all I do is think about food, I thought I’d take some time to write about another subject that is close to my heart: public transit. A few months ago, I came across this fascinating series by the photographer Michael Wolf. The theme of urban density recurs throughout his work, but he often photographs the buildings and streets of a particular city rather than the people who inhabit it. These photos, which depict Japanese workers packed into trains during rush hour, break that pattern.

Tokyo’s trains are notorious for being crammed to the gills during peak commuting hours, something which I’ve only experienced once or twice during my time here. (Yes, there actually are white-gloved “pushers” who ensure that no stray clothing or body parts are closed in the train doors.) Wolf’s photos do a great job of depicting this phenomenon, but they do so in a way that distances us from the subjects. In the most literal sense, Wolf creates this sense of distance by photographing riders who are already on the train and thus behind glass. In these images, the glass’s presence is constantly reinforced by a number of devices: water droplets, reflections of lights and buildings, condensation, or a hand pushed against the glass like a fish’s mouth, or a suction cup. Through these photos we gain access to a secret underground world, one many have heard but few have seen (or, which few have photographed in detail). In essence, Wolf captures two liminal moments: before the train pulls away from the station, or just before the doors open to release a human flood. In doing so, he materializes the balance between inside and outside, thereby heightening the voyeuristic nature of these images.

These photos also raise questions about population density and crowding. Is Tokyo’s level of density sustainable, not in the environmental sense but for the people who live with it every day? How much density is too much? While I am a strong supporter of compact development as a way to maximize resources and avoid sprawl, I wonder if there is point at which density negatively impacts social life or even becomes psychologically damaging. In other words, under what conditions does the neighborliness Jane Jacobs described become eclipsed by urban alienation (if at all)?

Granted, in Japan there’s not much choice when it comes to density – it’s simply part of the landscape and way of life here. Nevertheless, Wolf’s photos convey a definite uneasiness about the human effects of overpopulation and relentless work. The Japanese commuters are like fish trapped in an aquarium, suffocating and drowning in the cold black, blue and gray abyss of suits. Their stony faces reveal neither interest in the photographer nor curiosity about being photographed.  Cold indifference is the reaction across the board.  Now, this is not to say that all Japanese commuters would react this way.  This is clearly a heavily edited selection of photographs, twenty of perhaps thousands.  However, I think they do offer a subtle yet powerful critique of the demands and conditions of working life in Japan, where long commutes and workweeks are common.

More positively, these photos also suggest that it is possible to escape, if only briefly, from those demands.  After all, the title of the series, “Tokyo Subway Dreams,” implies rest and respite, albeit of a temporary and fleeting nature.  Viewed in this way, Wolf’s train photos still suggest a sense of confinement, but one that can be evaded by closing one’s eyes and trying to forget the world, if only for a hour each day.


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