One morning in 2016, I was sitting amongst a million or so other commuters on my mundane tube journey into central London, when I looked up to see a lady dressed in a velvet hood, seated in a classical, timeless pose. She was in a beautifully serene world of her own, far away from the noise of it all. Immediately, a 16th-century Flemish painting came to mind.

No. 1. From the series “16th-Century Tube Passengers” © Matt Crabtree. Finalist, LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2017.

I looked around and suddenly found I couldn’t see anything else but people held in their own Renaissance-like, personal moments; beautiful Caravaggio or Vermeer-like images of regular and everyday people that at a glance could easily be mistaken for portraits grand enough to grace the walls of any fine, stately home.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657–1659. Painted by Johannes Vermeer. Hanging at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Germany.

So, commute by commute, I began to surreptitiously collect these commuter images while adhering to three simple rules: the photographs had to be taken on my phone, and they had to be retouched on my phone, and they had to posted to social media during that same commute.

Strangely, the London tube turns out to be the perfect setting for a 16th-century Renaissance portrait. Bathed in a single, harsh light source from above, many of these everyday commuters find themselves naturally sitting with their hands folded on their knees. And whether they’re looking up to read an advert for a flaky health supplement or home insurance, or gazing down at their smartphones like it were some treasured book of prayers, they’re frozen in that wistful, timeless pose.

—Matt Crabtree

Editors’ note: This project was singled out for distinction in the Street Photography Awards 2017. See all of the inspiring work by the 37 winners, finalists and jurors’ picks!

Also, Crabtree has published a book of this work. See more photos and purchase it on his website.