One of the most common questions I hear or read about regarding a railroad photograph is “did it look that way in real life?”. The implication is that the photographer hasn’t accurately represented what was there.
In this way, railroad photography shares many of the same expectations that landscape photography has on it in that we need to accurately represent what was supposedly there and be representational. Both genres are bound by the generalized belief that a photographer has to use the found site aesthetics in light, environment, and contextual conditions and that creative interpretation of it is suspect.
While some photography is intended to be representational, even what supposedly records the “real” scene is a lie. The lie is a matter of degree as all photographers have experiences and point of views that influence how they will shoot a subject and thus every photograph will have a degree of subjectivity.
For example, if we glorify and revere the subject, as most railroad photographers do, we will use our subjectivity to crop out parts of the scene that don’t fit in with our point of view. A light snow can be made to look like a blizzard by using a telephoto lens and adjusting the shutter speed to get the snow to look light it’s falling faster and heavier.
Is this changing what was real or being creative? To me, creativity needs this subjectivity which shows that the photographer had a unique vision or point of view. If we can acknowledge that all photos have a version of the truth that resides in the photographer’s intent, then we can move away from the fiction that all railroad photography has to be seen as solely representational. Once we get there, then photography can get interesting and creative.