…just outside her glazed and curtained consciousness, life rolled away, a vast blackness starred with lights, like the night landscape beyond the windows of the train.
–Edith Wharton, The Reef
In “Notes on Photography & Accident” Moyra Davey expresses a disdain for grandiose presentations, especially large-scale photographs, with the exception of Hannah Wilke’s Intra-Venus series: “Here there’s a reason for the massive size: these pictures of Wilke’s delicate body rendered monstrous and bloated by cancer treatments are meant to be an affront, in-your-face, a gutsy cry of rage and defiance.” I’ve only seen the Wilke work online. Even in the tiny Google Search images, the power of it never ceases to floor me. I can barely imagine the impact of this “gutsy cry of rage” towering over me in a gallery. In terms of revealing that which is not sanctioned to be seen, Intra-Venus is a model for what I’ve tried to do in my own writing, so of course I find it of major importance.
I first read “Notes on Photography & Accident” a couple of months before I saw Davey’s Subway Writers I (2011), as part of the What are words worth? (2023) exhibit at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. As with Intra-Venus, I’d previously viewed the work online and was intrigued by it. Since the Subway Writers material is presented as groups of images in various tiled formations, the digitalized versions I found were particularly frustrating, privileging the overall rather than individual tiles. Still I was captivated by the focus on writers who are out of place. “Out of place” is a phrase I borrow from anthropologist Mary Douglas, who famously defined dirt as “matter out of place.” The subway is not an expected or sanctioned site for writing, and while performing such an act there is far from transgressive, there’s an off-kilterness to it that pulls me in. Viewed through the lens of matter out of place, the subway writers’ kinship with Davey’s photographs of dust and other detritus is obvious. And then, on a more meta-level, what writer or artist hasn’t at times felt tragically out of place?
The subway writers remind me of instances in my own life where I read or wrote on public transit, the exhilaration of performing these activities while having one’s body hauled through space. I remember one afternoon in the early 1980s when I was reading the newly released Journals of Sylvia Plath, which so excited me I could not sit still — so I tossed the book in my backpack and caught the 22 Fillmore. I wasn’t going anywhere; I just rode the bus to the end of the line and back in a state of elation, wildly underlining and making notes. When I lived in Chicago, I read Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook in its entirety on bus rides to and from work, mostly standing and swaying. When I taught at San Francisco State, I stopped driving to the campus once I realized I could do class prep on the M Oceanview. Crammed into the insanely crowded stop-and-go streetcar, I commented in the margins of student manuscripts with my purple or green Pilot Hi-Tec-C gel pen, carefully drawing the letters so my words wouldn’t appear shaky. The chaos and difficulty made my focus hyper-sharp.
At McEvoy Arts, when I approach Subway Writers I, I’m surprised how massive it is, especially given Davey’s critique of grandiose presentations. Comprised of twenty-five photos tiled together (five across, five down), the installation is more than six feet high, and nearly nine feet wide, dwarfing the other works at that end of the gallery. To take in its details, I have to move my body around, stoop down, crane my neck upwards. I’m unable to see much of what’s going on in the top row. Unlike the straight-on, beautifully lit, tri-pod-leveled gallery install shots, my in situ perception is topographic and partial, which mirrors what I imagine to be Davey’s covert stalker gaze as she took the pictures.
The monumentality of the project is undercut by Davey’s signature gesture of having folded and taped the photos and mailed them to a gallery. Populist and non-hierarchic, mail art is a medium perfected by both Ray Johnson and your weird friend from college. Across the surfaces of the twenty-five photo-tiles are scattered a confetti of minty tape squares, sliced yellow or blue AIR MAIL stickers, and stamps. A white address label sometimes occupies a white patch of the subway scene, confusing the layers. Fold lines throw light at unexpected angles, further obscuring portions of the image. These travel scars announce Davey’s photos as constructed objects, not merely windows on the world. Still, I cannot squelch my desire to search for narrative in the images, to interpret them as frozen rectangles of that which was and is no longer, to bask in photography’s melancholic aura of death.
Some notes from Notes on Photography & Accident:
Diane Arbus: “I don’t press the shutter, the image does.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson: “It is the photo that takes you.”
Paul Strand on choosing his subjects: “I don’t. . . . They choose me.”
Davey has come to believe it’s the same with writing: the words choose the writer. I’ve always felt that in some form or another, but it’s gotten more intense since Kevin died, where I’ve been thrown into a pathological interiority that has scattered my focus all to hell. I cannot write in a straight line. My brain stammers until I’m so absorbed in my subject matter I feel trapped inside it. I go to bed hopeless that anything will come of my mass of notes, and then I wake up in the middle of the night and sentences — sometimes whole paragraphs — hover. There is no going back to sleep until I grab my journal and transcribe.
In the morning I have no idea what I’ve written during the night. I don’t know if this could be considered accidental. I’m certainly not in control. It’s more of a summoning, like I’m calling back Kevin, who critiqued everything I wrote. The process is slow and the waiting agonizing. Eventually Kevin or some other Spicerian ghost arrives to rearrange the furniture of my subconscious, and then the piece comes together. When I write a passage that I’m really pleased with, I think: Kevin taught me how to pull this off.
The repeated elements in Davey’s tiled photographs undercut the uniqueness of any given image. The commuters seem like props caught in the photographer’s conceptual web. Occasionally there is a pop of individualism, but it quickly fades. After obsessing over these pictures for weeks, what do I immediately remember — the writer with the pink boots, the writer with the orange velvet gloves, the non-writer who breaks the fourth wall and stares directly at the camera. For me, she is the heroine of the series. I open the gallery’s install photo and look for her again. She’s wearing a burnt orange hoodie and her stare is accompanied by a slight scowl. This time through I notice the green, yellow, and white balloons floating above some guy’s lap, and that so many people are sleeping.
The train burrows through the tunnel like a long worm. The passengers are the worm’s innards jostling against one another. I peer at them, waiting for these tiled beings to reveal I don’t know what. A few cellphones are scattered about, tiny flip phones. Earpods are wired. Nobody is wearing a mask. Nobody looks afraid to be snuggled against one another. Even though they’re not that old, Davey’s photos capture a materiality we are rapidly losing. Before the total psychic colonization of social media, I imagine that I would have viewed these subway writers as figures of abstraction, for in the act of writing they are elsewhere. When I was in my twenties and thirties I wrote every chance I got — on my lunch break, in the waiting room of my doctor, my dentist, my chiropractor, my therapist. Now when writing in public, if somebody catches me, I feel embarrassed, like an antiquated cliché. There’s Dodie doing her writerly thing. From my position in San Francisco’s post-Covid, drug-riddled, doom spiral, the quiet materiality of Davey’s subway trains soothes. The writers hunch over their pages without constantly scanning for danger.
“Writing on the Subway with Moyra Davey” and Connie Zheng’s “A Map of Many Small Doors” are co-produced by The Back Room at Small Press Traffic and McEvoy Foundation for the Arts on the occasion of the exhibition What are words worth? at McEvoy Arts (June 16–September 2, 2023).