Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The Parisian Métro station names, interpreted literally in photographs

November 11, 2011 - 01:05 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Janol Apin is a brilliantly creative photographer with an eye for transit. He glanced at the Métro system of Paris and what did he see? Not merely trains and platforms but a whole world wrapped up in cultural imagination and tapped with his own lens. He shot a whole set of photos in which people acted out literal interpretations of the Métro station names.

How does his project manifest in the black and white photos?

Take the Parisian station "Liberté" and you get a photo of a man standing on the transit platform naked.

Or consider "Invalides" — it's a photo of a man with crutches waiting for his train.

Epic proportions enter the picture in the photo for "Alexandre Dumas," which warranted three musketeers touching swords underneath the station name.

Apin's collection is wonderful and worth glancing through for any fan of transit. See 17 of the photos here if you're curious about what this really looks like. Naturally I wondered if this would be possible for the D.C. Metro and immediately realized a few limitations.

Here in the District, our stations tend to reflect literal place names rather than lofty concepts or cultural references. How would people act out "Dupont Circle" or "Smithsonian" or "Farragut West"? So little is evoked. What I realized very quickly is that our place-names reflect nothing but place on many occasions, that they're less imaginative than they are geographically rooted in fundamental, map-driven ways. Our Metro station names tap the streets around them as well as major physical landmarks nearby. We get "Georgia Avenue" and "New York Avenue" creeping their way in. The Bethesda station is called Bethesda because it's in Bethesda. The Shaw-Howard University Metro station bears its name because it's in Shaw and near the university. Station after station reveals this trend ... there's nothing deeper than the place-name. In the Paris system, even those titles that refer to places lends themselves due greater associations due to Europe's history. At Paris's Rome station, the accompanying photo is, of course, a man hanging out in the Métro wearing a toga.

As our D.C. Metro examines how it's renaming all its stations with shorter names, I see our naming styling as more relevant than ever. What do our places say about our culture here in D.C.? That we're practical. That our transit names don't speak to broader history or ideas so much as practicality and navigation. That's not a terrible thing, really, although it's a shame that we can't attempt a project like Apin's and that we can't look up at our station names and suddenly have a classic scene from literature evoked in our mind's eye. We settle for the rooted, straightforward history of neighborhoods and locations in our names.

Hat tip to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for first tweeting about these wonderful photos a few weeks back.

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