An Artist’s Custom-Made Technology Turns Urban Commuting into Art

Artsy Editorial
Feb 2, 2015 12:00AM

Artist Adam Magyar travels the world to document city life in never-before-seen ways. Using specially built cameras, he focuses on people in transit, capturing them as they stand inside train cars or walk through public stations. Evidenced in his newest exhibition at Julie Saul Gallery, Magyar’s subjects are depicted in a way that is detached and documentary, but also engaged. He sees deeper meaning in our mass commutes and repetitive daily journeys, homing in on the seemingly insignificant moments that make up a large amount of our lives. 

Photographers that focus on urban life typically work in an off-the-cuff, street photography style, producing spontaneous images in reaction to the spontaneous energy of the city. Magyar’s approach is quite different. In order to capture his sweeping vision of city life, he creates his own technology. Using his own computer code and retrofitted cameras, he is able to build devices that can essentially scan spaces, producing what look like composite scans of time.  

In his series “Stainless” (2010-2011), Magyar shows the full length of underground train cars, sleek silver capsules silhouetted against black backgrounds. In each, the windows are filled with the bodies of riders, some of them staring, with bored looks on their faces, in the direction of the camera. Magyar takes these photographs as the trains are moving, using his scanning device. Each photo feels like an intimate glance into the daily lives of commuters. 

The show’s video works are captured using a high-speed industrial video camera that Magyar adapted to extend a 12-second exposure into 12 minutes of video. One work follows groups of commuters descending stairs in Sindorim Station in Seoul as they bob up and down at the pace of molasses. Their faces register expressions of displeasure and sadness, giving the viewer the impression of an extreme boredom that approaches suffering. 

To make his “Urban Flow” (2006-2009) images, measuring more than 90 inches horizontally, Magyar devised a version of the slit-scan camera, used to capture a progression of time in a single image. The photographs are uncanny, showing herds of people marching in the same direction, with the same sense of blind purpose. 

“Each little fragment is the present, and all these present fractions come together to give you the story,” Magyar has stated. “By the time we see the story, it’s like our memory. It’s already past.” It’s as if Magyar tries to slow down time in these photos, which is ironic because for most, the daily commute is rather tedious, something we’re happy to get through quickly. Magyar’s images nod toward this, but tell a greater story about the mundanity of contemporary culture.

M.A. Wholey

Adam Magyar: Kontinuum” is on view at Julie Saul Gallery, New York, Feb. 12–Apr. 4, 2015. 

Follow Julie Saul Gallery on Artsy.

Artsy Editorial