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Phil Maxwell on the Tube

March 30, 2012
by the gentle author

This is unique among the hundreds of pictures that East End Street Photographer Phil Maxwell has taken on the tube in the last thirty years – since he appears, reflected in the glass with his camera. On this rare occasion, Phil felt confident to raise the camera from the position he usually holds it while on the tube, nursed between his legs, because his subject was so absorbed in the newspaper.

Over all this time, Phil Maxwell has perfected the trick of taking pictures without needing to look through the lens, allowing him to take these extraordinary covert photographs of unselfconscious people absorbed in their own worlds. “You have to become like a magician with the camera,” he revealed to me, “You have to know what the lens is seeing from every angle.”

This technique accounts for most of the pictures in this selection and explains the low point of view in many of them. “It’s good to photograph from low down, you see so much more,” Phil explained to me, “And it’s more challenging to the eye because we are all used to seeing at eye level.”

While Phil has been photographing the life of the London streets, taking pictures on the tube has proved a natural counterpoint, offering the opportunity to photograph Londoners in private within a public space.

“Photographing people on the tube encapsulates all the skills required for being a street photographer. You have to deal with the constantly changing light and be judging the correct exposure. You can go from Whitechapel to the West End and it’s like travelling from day to night. In this respect, I have always regarded the tube as very special photographic studio for Londoners because it has such dramatic changes in lighting, from 100% artificial lighting one minute then bright sunlight the next.

And just as you’ve got different moods in lighting, people show different aspects of themselves at different times of day. If you take a picture at night they might be joyful and laughing from the pub, but if you take picture in the morning you will encounter the silent mournful masses – I always consider myself lucky that I don’t have a nine to five job, and there’s the evidence. Passengers may be carrying briefcases or toolboxes, but when they walk into the tube it’s as if they walk into my photographic studio.

The tube has become a very special and hallowed place for me. I’d be going from an assignment photographing a senior politician and I’d get on the tube, and I’d have as many as twenty frames left that I’d use taking pictures. If you look at my negatives, you’ll see that at one moment I am photographing Tony Blair and the next minute Mrs Smith sitting opposite me on the tube, which for me is much more interesting and enjoyable because politicians are totally plastic. It is a great joy to get on the tube, I always carry my camera with me and I always take pictures. You never know who’s going to get on and sit opposite.

People’s behaviour changes on the tube, almost as if they’ve gone into the operating theatre. Their breathing slows down and they go off and daydream, which suits me very well because they don’t realise what I’m doing when they’re on another planet.”

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Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

You can watch a film of Phil Maxwell’s tube photos by clicking here

and see more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Phil Maxwell. Photographer

9 Responses leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012

    Great stuff! Love the photo of the elderly couple at Mile End Station. Hope my husband and I haven’t come to this.

  2. joan permalink
    March 30, 2012

    These are lovely. They remind me of the Travis Ruse New York subway project which I used to check in with each day when it was running in the middle of the last decade.

    Best wishes,


  3. Kirsten permalink
    March 30, 2012

    They remind me of Walker Evans’ ‘secret’ subway photos. It’s funny how time and place can change, but something about the expressions on faces remains the same.

  4. bas maas permalink*
    March 30, 2012

    what a great pic of the old man coming up the stairs at aldgate east. I love this one

  5. Linda permalink
    March 30, 2012

    These are a delight to look at and I love the two young Asian gents against the Temple station as a concept. Brilliant art form.

  6. Haz permalink
    March 30, 2012

    Wonderful….and here’s the link to a short film by Phil Maxwell & Hazuan Hashim with music by Andy Keenan. Inspired by the Tube.

  7. sarah ainslie permalink
    March 30, 2012

    Lovely Phil they are so absorbing and I love the way everyone is in their own worlds whether with someone else or on their own even though they are in such a public space.

  8. gillian darley permalink
    March 30, 2012

    Vernon Heath, an early Victorian photographer, captured the Prince of Wales’s wedding in 1863 by means of a camera hidden in his hat.

  9. March 30, 2012

    since many of the commentators are mentioning their fave pic, i may add mine: the fat lady with the skinny man (i know it’s not the most flaterring pic, but it does provide food for thought)

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