My initial exposure to David’s project, The Railroad and the Art of Place, was his presentation at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (CRPA) conference in 2015. The ideas he presented took me a few months to absorb, but once I made a connection to them, was moved to write a post on my initial impressions. During David’s presentation, he showed about a dozen images and I was left wanting more, always a good sign that the work resonates with me. So when the center announced that they were publishing a book on this project, I knew that I had to get it.
As I usually do when I first receive a photo-book, I sat down with it and went through the pages one at a time to absorb the content of the material and also to appreciate the book as a physical object. I love books and always pay attention to how they are laid out, structured and printed. On my first pass, I usually don’t read any of the intros or essays and generally skip the captions as well, as my first impression is visual based.
For those not familiar with David’s project, he photographed the Norfolk Southern Pocahontas Division in West Virginia over a series of week long visits in the mid ‘90s. Instead of being trackside and capturing the railroad from the typical railfan point of view, he photographed the context of the railroad including the many little hamlets and valleys that the line traversed. His viewpoint was of the railroad being one aspect of the environment … not isolated from it. By doing so, he included much that most railfans would frame out, but more interestingly, he captured a sense of place.
While we got a peak at the project in his presentation and subsequent article in Railroad Heritage, a book really allows the scope of this project to come out. It’s through a series of photographs and repetition that we get a sense of this place and after absorbing the images, I really feel like I have a sense of this region. Of course, this is David’s response to what he saw and felt, but not having been there myself, the project does a wonderful job capturing a place and time for me. It’s an interesting approach on a railroad subject as we still can feel that this is railroad photography, but also have a broader sense of what the railroad does and how it is integrated into the landscape and economy of the region. There are no strong “signature” images here that stand out on their own accord, but that wasn’t the intent of the project. It’s the capture of the mundane, the common and the everyday through image depth and consistency that tell this story. He’s taking us along on a journey and through it, we get a marvelous sense of place.
On my second pass through the book, I read the short introductory statement by David which helps one understand what he is trying to do with this body of work. Following this are a few pages of early photographs David took outside this project in Pennsylvania and New York in the 1950’s. They are meant to show David’s vision and how it has evolved, but are to me a distraction from this project. In his original presentation, this body of work was subtitled Norfolk Southern’s Machine in the Garden of West Virginia which narrowed the scope of this project and helped define it. It’s what the book is about and the early photos are filler that don’t fit the narrative of the project nor add to our understanding of it.
The book ends with a couple of nice essays by CRPA board members Jeff Brouws and Scott Lothes, which are both informative and help place David’s work into the broader context of railroad photography. Image captions are also placed in the back of the book and list only place and date taken. Since the project is about a sense of place and discovering the significance in the mundane, detailed captions are not needed and would lead the viewer away from the intent of the project.
This project opened my eyes to a different way of interpreting the railroad landscape and I highly recommend this book. It has a few minor content flaws, but overall it’s a strong representation of David’s work that is nicely designed and produced. It belongs on the bookshelf of anyone looking to see what else railroad photography can be.
Featured Image: Williamson, WV, February 1994 Photograph by David Kahler and courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art