Subway Reading Habits Chronicled In Photo Project

What Are People Reading On Their Commutes?

The following is an excerpt from The Last Book by Reinier Gerritsen:

In 2008, on a hot day in May, I was walking along the Thirty-Third Street subway platform in New York City. Suddenly they were there, as if I had asked them to pose for me. Red lips, a red bag, and a red sweater. The reds all happened to be in the right place. I pressed the button several times. A blond woman stood reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, a look of concentration on her face; she was clearly reading a sad part of the book. My second character was intently reading Ayn Rand. Another woman was reading a book from her Kindle device. Unfortunately, Kindle does not display the cover of the book being read, so I will never know what she was reading. In the background of the photograph I took that day, you can see a man looking suspiciously into my camera.

You might ask: How did I get here, photographing readers on the 6 local train? It started with the financial crisis. For a few years prior, I was working on my street photography project The Europeans. The book was ready to print, but unfortunately, the crisis had depleted my funds, and I was unable to publish it. I decided to photograph the guys that caused it. I ended up on Wall Street, where I could feel the tension and hoped to capture it in my photographs. Yet people reacted in a friendly way toward my camera and me. When people questioned what I was doing in their subway, I handed them a little slip of paper that explained my project. Within a year I had gathered enough material to make a book. My American colleague Gus Powell came up with the title Wall Street Stop (2011), and provided a text, which captured the essence of what I wanted to achieve with my photographs:

His voyeuristic eye draws the individual from the group, observes posture, clothing, and expression. Gerritsen presents us a fascinating spectacle of life stories. His photographs concentrate on waiting, the in-between time, when people emanate a certain serenity and concentration. They withdraw themselves into their own private sphere, and create their own dimensions in the public space.

My role as a subway photographer did not come to an end there, however. Addictions are hard to stop. If I worked from inside the subway car instead of from the platform, I discovered, I could come closer to my subjects, allowing the viewer to appreciate the intimate relationship between reader and book. While shooting Wall Street Stop, however, I found that the printed book was rapidly losing ground to iPhones, tablets, and e-readers. Some propose that the book, the printed artifact that once carried all the intellect of the past centuries, will one day be replaced by its characterless digital successor. This means that the sight of people reading the Bible, Bukowski, or Roth -- each publicly displayed book jacket serving as a mini manifesto of individual taste -- is disappearing.

Starting in 2011, this notion drove me to again photograph people reading. This has resulted in an enormous archive of images of individuals and their books, now presented here. These images constitute a document of this transitional moment -- but not, one hopes, of the truly last printed book.

Below are five candid shots of commuters reading on the subway, along with their titles of choice:

'The Elements of Style' by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
Reinier Gerritsen, from The Last Book (Aperture, 2014)
'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster
Reinier Gerritsen, from The Last Book (Aperture, 2014)
'Xenocide' by Orson Scott Card
Reinier Gerritsen, The Last Book (Aperture, 2014)
'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen
Reinier Gerritsen, from The Last Book (Aperture, 2014)
'The Charioteer' by Mary Renault
Reinier Gerritsen, from The Last Book (Aperture, 2014)
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