When it comes right down to it, all of Adam Magyar’s photographs are about observing human existence within society. Beginning with the earliest series where he photographed people crammed into taxis or waiting at the elevator, he has tried to make sense of the world around him one individual at a time. He creates depictions of society by photographing different people in similar situations, often without even moving the camera.
Magyar prefers photographing in large cities. In series after series he has been able to capture impressions of society as a whole in images that acknowledge the individual as well as the group. He distinguishes himself from urban portraitists such as August Sander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugène Atget, and later Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus, who scoured the streets for the right individuals. They looked for differences whereas Magyar ascertains similarities. They kept moving through the city, while Magyar remains stationary and waits for people to move past his camera. The life that he chronicles is made up of everyday people, not the most beautiful, eccentric, and destitute who typically draw the attention of photographers. He seeks to describe a day-to-day moment in the life of one person but juxtaposes similar moments at the same place with different people until he has captured a time span representative of the life of a city. Next he jumps to different cities in various countries and continents until the commonalities within mankind begin to emerge.
Initially Magyar was content with collecting these repeatable moments as distinct images. But in time he became the alchemist, combining people from separate images into one scene. His search for an inclusive solution first led to the series Squares. Positioned on a bridge above a walkway, he photographed individuals one by one with all the detail that might be noticed by an attentive people watcher. He then combined these images to build a semifictional whole—real people in real situations reconfigured into a fictional scene that suggests that all activities occurred at the same time. At first the arrangement of the figures was unnaturally rigid in strict grid formation. Later arrangements took shape in natural, and therefore more believable, compositions.
The rewriting of time and space in the series Squares marks the pivotal moment when Magyar breaks from the Renaissance tradition of single perspective. He sets aside the idea of a world seen from one viewpoint (or camera lens) with one perspective in one moment in time. Instead he expands the view to one that stretches over time and place. The resulting photographs capture what the human eye or unaltered camera lens cannot.
While Magyar has gone to great lengths to develop technology to enable him to capture the world according to his understanding of the flow of life, his use of technology signifies only a means to an end. Breaking free from the limitations of his digital SLR camera, he turned toward slit-scan camera technology, which has only occasionally found its way into artists’ hands. Through his process of constant experimentation, he created a one-of-a-kind camera, a futuristic amalgamation of custom-made and commercial elements. He also wrote his own drivers to control his camera and the software to process the images.
The series Urban Flow represents people moving within and merged in a crowd. Magyar turns basic rules of observation on its head through his use of slit scan technology. Optical cameras, regardless of being analog or digital, capture the entire scene in one exposure. Therefore each image represents one moment in space and time similar to what a human eye would see. The camera’s depth of field and exposure speed may surpass what the eye can see or the brain can process, but they still share the same fundamental mechanics of the eye’s image capture, range of vision, and image receptors. On the other hand, slit-scan technology records one sliver in time and place, then records the next sliver a fraction of a second later. The final photographs are typically configured of hundreds of thousands of separate scans, each one pixel wide and recombined into a unidirectional stream of life. The images are printed as pigmented inkjet prints or digital silver-gelatin prints on fiber base photo paper.
A small video display screen in the gallery demonstrates the technology behind Magyar’s project to assist visitors in understanding the imagery and concepts behind the Urban Flow and later series. The short video especially clarifies the absence of buildings, street lights, and other fixed markers of city life. A static object produces the same pixel information from scan to scan. Pieced together the information is recorded as a horizontal streak. However, in traditional photography a similar streak in an image would read as a motion blur. By applying this technology, Magyar in effect erases buildings and other static visual elements. Instead, only the people as they flow through the city, as well as occasional cars or buses remain. The sizeable images, often six-feet wide or larger, still dwarf the figures as they seemingly glide through the photograph in the stream of fellow pedestrians. Individually and collectively they make up the urban flow.
With the next series, Stainless, Magyar turned his attention to the infrastructure of the city and people’s participation in the urban push to get from one point to the next. The images capture trains as they whisk their human load into the subway station. The slit scan camera stands mere feet away from the train as it rushes into the station. While the pedestrians waiting at the platform see little more than a blur of the arriving train, the camera catches even minute details of the train and its passengers. The passengers are sleeping, reading, or watching for the next train stop. Caught in private moments in a public place, they do not know that they are being photographed, yet they are keenly aware of others around them. The trains are aglow in the soft light created by the pixel-wide repetition of space that seems to dissolve any trace of city grime. The title Stainless could refer to the polished looking stainless steel cars, however it also acknowledges the impenetrable remoteness of the passengers, who even when packed tightly into crowded trains maintain their emotional separation from their
The passengers in Stainless look surprisingly similar regardless of the country in which the images were taken. The video by the same title, filmed with a custom-built slow-motion camera, is shot from the train and captures people on the platform. It reinforces the notion that urban dwellers are more alike than different whether already on their way or still waiting to enter the fray of the city.
Underlying Magyar’s work is a comprehension of human life in society. It considers the individual person in his or her temporary presence contrasted with the city‘s existence through time. How we understand reality depends on our view of space and time. We can get closer and see our world in greater detail, or we can step away to see the pulsating existence of life from afar. Magyar gives the viewer both options by providing macro and micro views of public life. In the end he seems to suggest that if you want to find the truth you can never stop looking.