The people in the photographs have wires coming out of their ears, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups in their hands, and newspapers on their laps. Indifferent to others around them, they read the Boston Metro, study the subway map on the wall, and wait. Behind them, familiar advertisements adorn the walls: fly with Lufthansa; find love online with Lavalife, “where singles click”; buy plates from Crate and Barrel.
This was what B.D. Colen saw between May 2005 and the fall of 2006 as he rode the Green and Red lines between his Brookline home near St. Mary’s Street and his job in Harvard Square.
The 61-year-old, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at Newsday and now has a communications job at Harvard University, snapped his digital images without anyone’s permission and without explaining the project to any of his subjects. Most people who noticed him did not object, and only once, he says, a woman “very firmly” gave him the finger.
“In part, it was a way to kill the time on the T,” he said, explaining that the 2.2-mile commute took him 40 minutes. “What you see is what I saw. . . . It’s capturing the scene that I was part of every day.”
Among the 20 black-and-white photographs that will go on display Jan. 21 at the Brookline Arts Center in a project entitled “Alone Together, Riding the Boston T,” are images of a woman who waits alone for a Green Line trolley, shivering from the cold on a snow-covered platform; a man who reads over a fellow passenger’s shoulder; and a girl in a black coat and heels who looks out from the steps of an overcrowded train – a second or two later, we imagine, the doors will shut.
Colen admits he does not like riding the T. When he isn’t taking pictures, he usually takes out his hearing aids and plugs in his iPod to make the ride go faster.
After completing the project, he gave up on the urban train and purchased a Vespa scooter. Now, he says, his ride takes only nine minutes.
In his home, surrounded by antique armchairs and couches in the dim light of the chandeliers that give his living room a 19th-century feel, Colen strokes his 14-year-old black-and-white cat Fluff and tries to discourage it from climbing on a reporter’s notebook. When Fluff purrs, he drools, Colen warns.
Although he had worked for 23 years for newspapers – writing for the Washington Post (where he got a job without a college degree even after flunking the spelling test) and for Newsday, where he covered mostly medical issues – Colen says his first passion was photography. His summer high school jobs in the 1960s were with local papers, where he made minimum wage, took photos, and somehow got sent to cover the civil-rights march on Washington in 1963.
Then came a long reporting career, which started with a part-time job as a copyboy at the Post and culminated with the Pulitzer Prize at Newsday in 1984, for a story about a baby who was born with severe disabilities. It is not an exaggeration, Colen says, to say that he pioneered the coverage of bioethics in daily newspapers.
Colen rediscovered photography in January 1993, when Newsday sent him to cover the famine in Somalia. Since then, he has been taking photos in his spare time and even started a business called A Day in Our Life, in which he spends one day with a family and produces an 80-page photo book.
Subway photos are similar to that project, he said, because both involve a “fly on the wall” approach.
“I try to move around as little as possible, so that I won’t become the center of attention, and just let the scene unfold in front of me,” he said.
The people in Colen’s subway photos don’t look happy, but the photographer says it isn’t because all Bostonians are miserable.
“They are tired,” he explains. It’s either “the end of the day or the beginning of the day before people want to be up. I don’t think all these people are sad, but I don’t think commuting makes most people happy.”
Whatever the passengers’ mood, the photos won praise from the MBTA’s general manager, Daniel Grabauskas.
“The photographer did a terrific job of capturing the wonderful diversity that characterizes the ridership of not just the MBTA, but of any public transportation system in the world,” Grabauskas wrote in an e-mail.
The Boston Public Library acquired 26 of the subway images last month.
According to Aaron Schmidt, who is in charge of the library’s photography collection, the BPL spent about $3,500 on the images.
“We saw that it was a really unique project with high-quality photos. We are always biased toward Boston subjects,” Schmidt said.
The library also has a large collection of old photographs of the Boston Elevated Railway, and some pictures from the 1980s, when a group of photographers documented the old Orange Line along Washington Street before it was torn down, later to be replaced by the Silver Line, Schmidt said.
“Alone Together: Beneath the Streets of Boston” will be on display from Jan. 21 to Feb. 29 at the Brookline Arts Center at 86 Monmouth St. An artists’ reception will be held Feb. 8, from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call 617-566-5715. Visit bdcolenphoto.com/Tshow/ to see a slideshow of Colen’s photographs.