Perspectives on Seeing – Other Visions of the Railroad

Generally, when we think of railroad photography, we think of it from our own perspective of one that admires and pedestalizes the many aspects of railroading. Our perception certainly defines how we see and represent trains. But, are we seeing the railroad one-dimensionally and blind to other ways of seeing that may influence our own photography?

Trains have been around for about 200 years now…long enough to have engrained themselves within our culture and society with various meanings. They represent history, travel, heritage, romance, technology, freedom, mobility, power, nostalgia…the list can go on with various connotations. These other perspectives are usually photographed differently than how we generally represent the railroad. These alternative view-points are worth considering, or at the least to have an awareness of, as we broaden our own visual literacy.

Close to how many of us portray the railroads, in aesthetic style and vision, are photographs made by the railroads themselves. Since their beginnings, railroads have hired professional commercial photographers to shoot their equipment, facilities, engineering and landscape with the end goal of persuasion. They are seeking to ‘spin’ their point of view to influence public perception, investors, or politicians to better their business position. While we tend to think of any commercial or advertising photography with a dis-taste, attempting to deceive or sell us something, much of this photography matches the vision we share of the railroad. What generally sets good commercial photography photography apart from that of a railfan, is that it attempts to tell a story that supports the marketing message of the railroad.

The builders of the Union Pacific used photography extensively to promote their progress and the opening of the West to not only new settlers, but also the financiers back east. These images showed that their money was being put to good use and encouraged them to invest more. Most railroads have hired photographers as needed, but some are closely associated to commercial photographers that worked for them over extended periods of time. The New York Central hired Ed Novak as their commercial photographer and he produced a large body of work that has been widely distributed. Nicholas Morant’s images of the Canadian Pacific are equally well known and he photographed a scenic curve so often that it now has his name associated with it. Other established commercial photographers that worked for railroads include Steve Edwards associated with the Southern Pacific, John Long with the Erie Railroad and R. Collins Bradley with the Santa Fe.

Winston Link was a commercial photographer who persuaded the Norfolk and Western to support his personal project. The N&W had a long history of utilizing the power of publicity and advertising to be a good ‘neighbor’ within their service area and saw that Link’s project could further their business objectives. This project is unique as it combines Link’s personal vision with a company narrative. He needed the N&W’s cooperation to get the images and the results are straight out of the late 1950-early 1960s school of advertising. It is due to Link’s technical mastery, story-building and nostalgia that these images are now considered works of art.

Commercial and railfan photography don’t stray too far in their approach since both project a reverence for the railroad, but others can see the railroad differently. Railroad travelers often portray the experience of the journey, with some looking inward at fellow passengers and others responding to the passing landscape during the train’s passage. These images are rarely about the machine, but about the feelings and emotions of travel.

Close to heart for readers of this blog would be Never on Wednesday by Richard Loveman and Mel Patrick, which brings us into the Rio Grande’s version of the California Zephyr. While the equipment and train is fully documented, much of the book’s impact comes from descriptions of the passenger’s experience as the ‘Silver Lady’ travels across the scenery of Colorado and Utah. As great as this book is, it still presents the journey with the railfan’s reverence. A less biased perspective would be In Search of Great Men by McNair Evans. He travels Amtrak across the country and combines his photography with personal written statements from his portrait subjects and develops an understanding of why people travel and their experience of it. While McNair documents the journey looking in, Stacy Evans (no relation to McNair) looks outward. Her project entitled Passenger brings our gaze to the passing scene during the train’s journey. Both of these projects have a look and feel that compliments each other. There are many examples on the web of railroad travel experiences. but I also would like to single out Chinese People on a Train by Wang Fuchun which has some compelling images from the other side of the world.

A traveler of a different sort is the hobo. While often romanticed in culture for their supposed freedom to travel and avoidance of a mainstream life, the reality is that most people who live the hobo life are drifters, runaways, or vagrants. That doesn’t disparage their point of view and this alternative culture is best captured by those that live it, not by outsiders looking in. There are many enduring images of hobos captured during the depression by the WPA photographers, but these images are by outsiders, and lack authenticness. The ‘new hobos’ have grown up with technology at their fingertips and are not shy about showing their self image, no matter what their situation. These people have a unique experience of trains and seeing their point of view as well as their lifestyle is quite captivating.

The best example I have seen is from Mike Brody, who lived this lifestyle for several years before returning to the mainstream. His images are emotionally charged as well as beautiful to look at. His images are so powerful and thought provoking that a New York gallery picked up his project and a publisher turned them into a book, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. Taking on the same lifestyle with a black and white vision is Michael Ranta. While it’s easy to look down on these individuals for their choices, they are documenting an authentic experience of the railroad. Out of these experiences, come a unique point of view and a differing vision of the railroad.

For many, the railroad is simply a prop. Without a direct interest in trains, they represent various meanings to people, with the connotations of travel, freedom, transition and ‘going’ represented by the rails receding into the distance. With the railroad tracks generally easy to find, they have become a popular and easy posing background for portraits. These portraits on the track are of course dangerous for the participants and full of clichés, but their popularity shows how strongly railroads are tied into popular culture. A quick search on Google for “portrait on a railroad track” turned up 3,200,000 results, showing how deeply ingrained the railroad is in our collective psyche and reflected in their continued use as a prop to signify various emotions and meanings.

When a photographer documents many similar examples of a type or class, it is referred to as a typology. A collection of images is more powerful than an individual when it allows one to see similarities and differences within the same subject matter. Long a tool within the scientific community, photographers have adapted it as it suits the inherent ability of the camera to record an objective image. What one sees as a typological collection and how to document it, is where subjective vision of the photographer adds meaning. A great resource for those interested in learning more is the Topologist: collector of collections

Some photographers that looked at railroad subjects this way include Jeff Brouws with his Coaling Tower project, which has shown in the Robert Mann Gallery as fine art and also developed into an article positioned for railroad infrastructure enthusiasts in Trains Magazine. In a similar vein, Lewis Ableidinger has documented the utilitarian trackside building in a project called Modern Railroad Structures, which is a great example of a typology.

Many railfans shoot roster shots of locomotives and if grouped into a collection of similar classes, photo angles and lighting, form the basis of a comparative typology. Considering that many railfans are very interested in the slight detail differences on locomotives that vary by railroad, it’s surprising that no one conducted a typology study of this aspect. Fallen Flags is a project by photographer John Sanderson documenting the familiar bulldog face of the EMD cab-units. Where most typologies are concerned with similiaries and differences on the subject, here the main difference is more on the surrounding context of the mass produced locomotive. Not a true typology, but an interesting perspective on it.

Lastly, since the camera’s invention, photographers have been taken with the landscape and it have been one of the main subjects from the beginning. Naturally, as the railroads sprouted across the country, they became part of the landscape and were often incorporated into the composition. Whereas the landscape was once only viewed as heroic and pastoral, it is now more often seen from a realistic perspective and thus the definition of the landscape has broadened to include all the outdoors, including the “ugly” parts.

David Kahler’s recent project The Railroad and the Art of Place fits into this category for me. By including the surrounding contextual landscape, he is showing a more “realistic” perspective on the environment and economy of the region. Doing so adds much to our understanding of the railroad and its role within the surrounding country. Another interesting project is by Edward Burtynsky, a well known landscape photographer, that highlights industry’s impact on the land. His project Railcuts makes a statement by the repetition of images that show the systematic altering of nature to suit our economic gains. Photographer Scott Conarroe also interprets the landscape and his project By Rail shows how the railroad infrastructure has impacted our natural and urban vistas. Many of his other landscape portfolios include the railroad in one form or another as well.

This is not meant to be a thorough list of how people see and interpret the railroad, but a starting point for thinking. I am a railfan and without a doubt my vision has developed similarly to other railfans. By looking at other perspectives, I can hopefully keep my mind open to alternative possibilities of seeing a familiar subject. Two observations that I noted as I sought examples for this post were that the most successful and interesting bodies of work formed a unified series and that each expresses a point of view…the unique vision of the photographer.

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