At the 2015 Center for Railroad Photography and Art conference, David Kahler presented his images portraying the Pocahontas Division, Norfolk Southern Railroad in West Virginia. His project showed the railroad scene as he saw it, but by including elements that most railroad photographers would cut out of their frame, his images unsettled many in the audience as his point of view was against the visual conventions in the genre of railroad photography. What made people so unsettled? Trash.
For David, the “trash” of man-made detritus is part of the found railroad scene and fit his vision of how he wanted to portray it. The detritus is there as he has shown us through his images, and he made a creative decision to include it whereas most railroad photographers would have excluded it.
While David’s images appear to be documentative at first glance, his deliberate framing and point of view make them subjective. As an individual photo, David’s intent is not apparent, but each does capture the soul of the place well. It is as a group that the images really shine and through consistency in point of view and intent, he captures the economic and aesthetic bleakness of West Virginia as well as it’s soul. They remind me of many of Walker Evans shots from the depression era in the way you can feel the environment.
As railfans, we generally idealize and romanticize the railroad. By framing out the parts that don’t meet our vision of the railroad, are we making our images “less real”?
Seeing his presentation and listening to the discussions of “trash” with my peers at the CRPA event has really effected the way I look at a scene now. Whenever I bring my camera up to frame a scene, I have “trash” in my mind, and wonder if I should be including more of the found environment versus framing it out and glorifying a small part of it.
David’s images left me thinking and I can’t think of a better compliment to someone than that.
If you missed David’s presentation at CRPA, you can order a copy of Railroad Heritage from the organization which features an article adapted from his presentation, illustrated with many of his project images.