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Buchanan, Virginia – Johnson Family Residence – circa 1936

Place in Photography

“Place conspires with the artist. We are surrounded by our own story, we live and move in it. It is through place that we put out roots.” - Eudora Welty

This photo was taken by a member of my family around 1936. That is my grandfather in the middle with his hat on his knee. My mother is the blond-headed girl on the left, half in and half out of the frame. It would be another ten years before she would marry and I would come along.

Unlike so many family photographs that fill the frame with a person, this picture reveals the spirit of a place, and that is what makes this old photo special to me. The people in the photo are in context. Their life and the place where they lived it are visible. I knew this place. I remember sleeping in the attic room behind the dormer windows above the porch, and the rain on the tin roof.

The best photographs come when the photographer makes a connection to a place and responds to it. For us railroad photographers, that may mean backing up a bit to see the broader context, or going deeper to uncover the history and meaning of a place.

This came to mind recently while reading about two multiple-year photography projects.

Michael Froio wrote about his Pennsylvania Railroad project, From the Mainline, in an article which we published (here) on The Trackside Photographer last week . He writes:“My goal when I set out was to satisfy a curiosity, but what I think I have done is expand my use of photography to become part of a larger idea interpreting the social, industrial and railroad history in a creative and accessible way.”

And in the latest issue of Railroad Heritage, the quarterly journal of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, Marc A Entze writes about his experience photographing an small Idaho short line over the course of a decade. In “To Fully Photograph a Place” (pp18-39) he tells how his experience with the railroad deepened over the years as his photography went beyond beautiful railroad scenery to find the soul of the place and the people who lived and worked there. The railroad is now gone.

My grandparents died in 1963 and their house was sold. A few years later, it burned down. Their place survives in a single photograph. I wish there were more.

 Edd Fuller, Editor
Your thoughts and comments are welcome

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