On a crowded subway car I carve out what boundaries are possible, apologizing with a mumble or nod when I brush against my neighbors, whose bodies exist to me only as discrete parts: the arm reaching past my face, the hand above mine on the pole, from which I vigilantly keep a nominal distance — hands are, after all, incredibly intimate.
The four-year-old Instagram account @subwayhands collects these amputations in a feed that lives up to its name by featuring only photos or videos of hands on the subway. Photographer Hannah La Follette Ryan, currently a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, takes the photographs with her iPhone, and her project has around 110,000 (and counting) Instagram followers.
In an interview with the website 6SqFt, she cites Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands as inspiration, photos that are sometimes referred to as “composite portraits” for their expressiveness. In Ryan’s photographs, the disconnected hands are endowed with this same kind subjectivity, revealing just as much as a traditional portrait of a face might. Ryan describes hands as parts of a person’s body that “they might not give all that much thought to,” implying that this thoughtlessness lets something slip. I see this leakage in her images, like one of someone using their newspaper as a barrier between the pole and their hand (germaphobe), or another of a person cracking the knuckles of both hands while a smartphone rests face-up on their stomach, playing a video (a subway-as-living-room level of relaxation).
Ryan’s @subwayhands photos used to include faces more often, but in recent years the focus on hands has sharpened. In general, we’re given just enough context for the hands, which in Ryan’s zoom reveal themselves as a natural synecdoche for the human. We know this intuitively, though — our language abounds with haptic metaphors. We can reach out, be in or out of touch. Ryan’s project works by breaking its subjects down into these parts — the hand as the natural fragment working for a whole and thus giving a point of entry, a grip on things.
Despite these intimations, the rigorous quality of the framing and the zoom also suggests the voyeuristic distance implicit in street photography. For me, the promise of an uninvolved revelation is part of the appeal of urban street photography — a good example of the genre will underscore the remote wholeness of other people while also purporting to disclose something relatable. To paraphrase Diane Arbus, a camera gives a kind of license into other people’s lives.
There’s a long history of the spontaneous or furtive street photograph, especially in photos of the subway, where photography was technically illegal from the early 1930s until 1994. Walker Evans, for example, famously photographed subway riders in the 1930s using a hidden-camera technique: He hid his 35mm camera in his coat, its lens peeking between buttons, and kept the shutter release within reach inside his sleeve.
Ryan’s work takes up this legacy — she says in interviews that she doesn’t ask permission to take the photos, though she is open about her project if she’s caught by her subjects, as occasionally happens. Her inconspicuously ubiquitous iPhone is the modern-day equivalent of Evans’s buttoned-up coat, and there’s a satisfying symmetry in the fact that the tool she uses to take her photographs is the same one we use to view them.
Many of the images on the @subwayhands feed feature devices, along with the awkward grips and newly evolved gestures used to interact with personal screens. These are my favorite, as they echo my own fingers dragging and tapping as I view the photographs. Sometimes these screens are flat and black, the devices just another thing to hold; often, though, they’re alive, the hands in question holding further reflection of the mind they’re attached to: someone who listens to Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same in 2018; someone who takes a selfie with their iPhone’s rear-facing camera.
Ryan pays close attention to pattern, color, and framing. There are visually satisfying images of symmetry, like one of two people sitting side-by-side with their arms crossed in exactly the same way, and moments of color coincidence captured, as when baby blue nails are framed in relation to a baby pink advertisement. In this instinct, the project could be called democratizing in a way that riding the subway usually isn’t. We know what trains go to the wealthy, or poorer, or “in transition” neighborhoods, what stop on the L all the remaining white people will get off at, but in Ryan’s eye, all the fragments of bodies pictured are treated in the same way, both objectified and reified in the logic of the feed.
Ryan has a fondness for the self-referential, and she’s attentive to the images in the environment she’s photographing — one recent photo is of a picture of a hand in the corner of a torn subway ad. Some of the more arresting photographs are symptomatic of their environment in a more literal way — commuting by subway is a liminal activity that must be endured passively, and in Ryan’s work we can see the negotiations riders make to tolerate the tension of waiting when you have somewhere to go — the tautness of clawed hands, gripping onto bars or crevices not designed for steadying. These photographs seem the most choreographed because the poses are so unnatural, and the awkwardness is to my eye the marker of a classic @subwayhands image.
Many of the photos are of people touching themselves — hands picking cuticles, arms folded as if in self-comfort or self-defense — a way to close the loop on oneself in a socially overwhelming environment. But I’m also thinking of a picture Ryan took of an infant’s entire fist gripping a full-grown thumb or of her recent image of two different people’s hands gripping a subway pole, one overlapping onto the other, that elicited the comment “goals” from an Instagram user. On the subway, where so many norms revolve around not touching each other in certain ways, these moments of mutual touch are a kind of breach, a suggestion of real contact.