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Art Photobook Reviews

Metro by Herb Robinson

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

On one of our all too infrequent visits to New York some years ago we were sitting on a subway train trying to head back to our hotel, I won't say which one, but it was the inspiration for a very famous salad which also bears its name (no, not the Hotel Nicoise!).

I have to admit to finding the New York subway one of the more confusing networks on which I have travelled. What with its combination of slow and fast trains sharing the same tracks, I have leapfrogged desired destinations on more than one occasion. However on this particular day after a lot of walking through downtown Manhattan we decided to brave it once more.

So there we are, subway, map open (to anyone under the age of twenty, maps used to be printed on paper) and engaged in a healthy debate as to which station was ours, when out of nowhere the indoor equivalent of an eclipse occurred and the deepest voice I have ever heard boomed "Where you headin'?" I looked up, and up and then up a bit more until I reached the summit of what appeared to be Barry White's big brother. Even though the train was well lit and full of people, in my head I was automatically back in the world of Bruce Davidson's dark and threatening 1980 classic "Subway" and for some unaccountable reason, in fear of my life.

One of us mumbled a destination that we knew was close but not too specific, and waited. "You on the wrong line." the voice of God proclaimed.  All I recall is that a finger came down and directions were forthcoming. Then the light went out completely as friend of Barry's brother appeared, to manifest a total eclipse.  "You sending them the long way round..." he pronounced "....this is the best route." Another finger and more directions.

Within a few minutes we became the mission of around four guys, all intent on helping the tourists get back home.

Why did I remember this and why am I telling you? Because this was one of those moments that contradicts every negative story and recollection that is generally recounted with regard to subway travel, and it also evokes the spirit of this wonderful new book entitled Metro, by veteran photographer Herb Robinson.

The Subway or Tube as it is affectionately known here in London, is a city's lifeblood. Its network of tunnels criss-cross the body of the metropolis like a mechanical vascular system, the  trains the blood in its veins, endlessly transporting millions of people as they go about their daily lives.

As a Londoner, I have become absorbed into its plasma - a single platelet - that not only relies on it but - for the most part - enjoys the little dramas and snippets of personal soap operas that are played out before me. Sitting in my front row seat, catching what I can before the "commercial breaks" that are station stops constantly refresh the narrative by sweeping members of the cast on and off of its perpetually shifting stage.

A broken cut-up of performance and dialogue that even Beckett or Burroughs would have struggled to rival.

For the book Metro, Robinson has taken his place as an observer on three of the world's largest and best known subway systems, New York, London and Paris and through his energetic and colour rich photography, presents them as three very different characters.

A clear and concise visual dialogue which instantly imparts the flavour and characteristics of each individual location.

The swagger, confidence and exuberance of New York.

London's diametrically opposed cool repression combined with an uninhibited display of self expression,

and of course the self appointed air of elegance and tongue in cheek superiority that is part and parcel of Paris' mystique.

There is also a wonderful democratisation with regard to the subterranean world of subway travel. There are no first class carriages, nowhere for the "haves" to escape the sobering reality of the "have-nots".

Rags brush against Mohair. Plastic bags sit on floors next to Louis Vuitton (some of which is even genuine).

Skin tones from across the spectrum bounce and blend into a human terrazzo, a beautiful shifting blend of colours and cultures, the physical embodiment of Coltrane in full unrestrained abandon.

It seems the subways are the visual equivalent of the jazz that courses through Robinson's own veins, and maybe somewhat ironically it is their diversity and everyman credentials that are also the true unifying factors in these three portfolios.

The subway is the city and the people are the subway.

Robinson's work has long been affiliated with subjects as diverse as jazz, cinema and street photography. For many (myself included up until recently) his achievements will have gone unnoticed, however his place in the arts should be justly celebrated as along with his personal body of work, he is one of the founding members of The Kamoinge Workshop.

With its name derived from a Kenyan word meaning “a group of people acting together”, Kamoinge rapidly established itself an influential group of African American photographers who came together in the early 1960s around the time of the American civil rights movement as an artist collective.

Their mission was and still is, to support, develop, critique and promote the work of otherwise overlooked, undervalued and generally ignored black artists.

I can only hope going forward that their voice increases in volume and that the work of Kamoinge's members begins to reach a wider audience.

What riches await us all.

Metro is published by Schiffer.

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