One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Beauty

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.

Nolan, WV, February 1993 David’s deliberate camera positioning and framing of the made-made “trash” here go against conventions in the railroad photography genre. Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

Nolan, WV, February 1993
David’s deliberate camera positioning and framing of the made-made “trash” here go against conventions in the railroad photography genre.  Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

 

Iaeger, WV, February 1996 This photograph has both an impartialness to the railroad and a feeling of spontaneity that feels more like a candid photo. It creates a sense of place better than most carefully composed photos because of that. Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

Iaeger, WV, February 1996
This photograph has both an impartialness to the railroad and a feeling of spontaneity that feels more like a candid photo, but creates a sense of place better than most carefully composed photos because of that. Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

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.

 

Williamson, WV, February 1994. The train is an important part of this scene, but the inclusion of the lower left building and foreground debris/rubbish help build the story here to show the physical and economic context of the railroad. Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

Williamson, WV, February 1994.                                                                                                                                    The train is an important part of this scene, but the inclusion of the lower left building and foreground debris/rubbish help build the story here to show the physical and economic context of the railroad. Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art

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.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Ron Bouwhuis

    At the end of the day I think it all does come down to the photographer’s intent.

    If the goal is purely documentation — as in, capturing the essence of a place as close to its day-to-day reality as possible, then a totally straightforward approach is really the only way. You can leave everything but the standard focal length lens at home, and forget about cropping or anything else that selectively takes the final image away from what the camera saw.

    If undertaken as an artistic approach, however, the photographer must accept that without some form of introduction to the thinking behind the work, the average viewer may consider the end results to be nothing more than casual snapshots rather than ‘art’. This, due to the fact that the final results appear — on the surface, at least — to be absent of any conscious effort toward carefully thought-out composition, timing or stylistic interpretation.

    I will admit that I found myself somewhat perplexed when I first saw these photos in Railroad Heritage. They do feel very real in a ‘warts and all’ kind of way, and perhaps because of that seem to run contrary to what we might expect to see through CRPA. To that end I’d be curious to hear some of the “unsettled” opinions that were raised by conference attendees when they saw them.

    1. Eric Williams

      Ron,

      I agree that for photography to be art, that it needs intent. Hopefully it has some form of beauty as well which I believe for David resides in portraying a portrait of a place. David’s images do have intent, which becomes clear when viewed as a series but still benefits from an introduction.

      For me, David’s deliberate inclusion of “trash” helps create the atmosphere in his images and has shown me a point of view that I wouldn’t normally consider. While his intent is art, he is also creating a document of what is there, and it has me thinking that some of my images could benefit from an inclusion of more of the scene. I generally like to pare an image down to it’s essentials and eliminate anything that seems superfluous. In doing so, I’m often eliminating elements that may tell a historical record of a time, era and place.

      Perplexed is an appropriate description for the audience’s general reaction to David’s work, especially after he stated that “trash is good” during his presentation and it became the focus of much attention. As most railfans are used to seeing pretty train photos, his inclusion of trash just didn’t sit well with most of the people I spoke with. To me that shows that railroad photography has a way to go to broaden its boundaries in content and expression.

  2. Eric
    I was there for Davids presentation and I admit becoming heated in defending his work in response to another person criticism of it.
    Years ago, when still the neophyte, I captured the following scene. After posting to RP.net, I admit to astonishment at it’s huge popularity. One mans trash…http://www.railpictures.net/photo/495997/

    1. Eric Williams

      Dennis,

      I enjoyed David’s presentation initially because he had a different point of view, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it other than I supported what he was doing. It took me a few weeks for the “lesson” to settle in and now I understand how adding the “trash” not only adds context, but supports the narrative and emotion of the image. Your photo is a great, great example of this and is so much stronger for it.

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