My title is very working (I change my mind about it daily), but it is currently “Underground Intimacy: Self-Fashioning in Bruce Davidson’s Subway, 1980”.
What led you to choose this subject?
I first saw a few photographs from the Subway series around one year ago on our amazing tutor Rebecca Arnold’s Instagram. I did not know at the time this series would become the topic of my dissertation until I kept coming back to them, enchanted by this closeness I felt to the people within the photographs and Davidson’s use of color and light. I was interested in documentary photography and dress, and I thought the subway created an interesting platform to discuss groups of bodies and self-fashioning.
Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?
Anthropologist Marc Augé’s Non-places has been the most challenging but most helpful book I have read; I use his theory about transitory spaces like the subway to contextualize my argument. But I’ve also really enjoyed researching the subcultures of New York City in 1980. I don’t directly include it in my dissertation, but I now know a surprising amount about gang culture/customs and the evolution of graffiti in the subway.
Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?
I can’t choose a favorite! I love the photographs as a series. But the first photograph I knew I wanted to include, and the first visual analysis I wrote, is this photograph of a woman dressed in an all yellow tube top and running short pairing. Her body is turned away from the viewer, but the way Davidson captures the color of her garments and the light reflecting off her skin is so beautiful.
Favorite place to work?
I do the majority of my research at the V&A National Art Library, but I do my best writing at Timberyard, which is a coffee shop in Seven Dials. (I do also need to give a shout out to the employees at the Pret next to the Courtauld who are so kind to me—they are always asking about my dissertation as I go to them daily for sustenance and caffeine).
The Vivian Maier exhibition at the Forma fondazione in Milan is one of them. The exhibition showcases over 120 photographs by Chicago photographer and former nanny, Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work and story were unearthed by John Maloof in 2007. Maier has since been heralded as “one of the best US street photographers of the 20th century”. Her work however had never been intended for publication: her photographs are personal snapshots of city life in the late 1950s, mostly of Chicago and New York. For the fashion historian, they constitute valuable documents of the ways in which dress was worn and experienced in the 1950s and beyond. Maier had a sharp eye for the dissonances of modern life apparent on the surface of things: the clothing of her subjects often bears the marks of these incongruities.
Her photographs also powerfully articulate the issues that surround the role and representation of women in the postwar years. A photograph taken in the 1950s in a Chicago streetcar for instance highlights the tension between the pervasiveness of women as surface (we discern the fashionable silhouettes of three models on one of the newspapers), and the visibility or agency that is simultaneously denied to them (the image hints at the male-dominated workplace). Her numerous self-portraits however form an interesting counterpoint (also on view at Forma). In these images Maier asserts her presence and reclaims an existence for herself through her own self-fashioning.