I grew up in a neighborhood in the Bronx (the only part of New York City, as I always love to point out, that’s on the North American mainland) that was adjacent to the mainline of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and its no longer active Van Ness yards. This was in the 1940s. As a little kid I’d take walks there with my father, and marvel at the trains, tracks, and rail-side and yard hardware—the signals, towers, cranes, etc.
Although our apartment was small by most anyone’s current standards, my parents managed to find room to somehow set up a small Lionel O -gauge layout for me and my brother. The engine had to be Santa Fe. Why? A little kid fixation I suppose. During the war my father’s business relocated him to Amarillo, Texas. He went ahead to get settled. My Mommy and I followed. We rode out on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (at least west out of Chicago) on the Super Chief. That catchy McGuire Sisters song was regularly on the radio too. These sorts of things stuck and sunk in. They still resonate to this day. For many of us who loved railroading from early on in life, those early experiences perpetuate some essential atoms of our childhood throughout the course of all our accumulated decades.
All this then, I guess, by way of indicating that The Railroad entered my life, and loves, early on. It imprinted deeply, and indelibly. In those earlier years, I sent out loads of gimme post card requests to the major railroad companies, and manufacturers (and to aircraft ones to boot) for photos and posters. They arrived in copious numbers, and graced the walls on my room for many years.
Now I find myself often making railroad pictures of my own—not as a singular or specific focus, or as a honed-in specialty, but as part of the vast agglomeration of photographs I’ve been making for more than thirty years, and in all fifty states. This, a self-imposed mission (even, for me, something perhaps as a patriotic act), to just go out and look at as much of these United States, in all their regional variety, as I practicably could, and thereby attempt to get a handle on what all determines the defining characteristics of American regions.
Of special significance: infrastructure. And most salient in that broad category, The Railroads. I most regularly skew towards looking at how railroads interplay into the complex weave of our society, culture, and lay of our land.
I’m primed to wonder about the tales of lives lived, work done and plans and dreams achieved, or failed.
There are upwards of thirty thousand photos in this body of my American work. I could select only a fraction of this number, but I perforce went through selections from every state. Alas, I fell shy of all fifty. I wound up picking out one image from forty-four states. Keep in mind that the selection I made, and am showing to you, is very concise; it is merely the tip of the iceberg (something else that I have photographed in large numbers).
I mainly would just like to show you my photos. But, its nearly impossible for me not to blather a little and say a few things to help get you into the neighborhood of what I’m getting at, and into the context of what I do when out in the world. And, why I look at things the way I do.
Also worth noting is, that by nature, I am something of a taxonomist. So, there always are categories galore; all are interrelated in one way or another, and resonate throughout.
No doubt about it, like with most people who like one sort of an infrastructure or another, and machinery, I too am profoundly drawn by the sheer allure of the nuts and bolts factor. But, other dimensions of experience can also prevail; maybe more so than all else.
The railroads are integral to America, our shared experiences, and our overall and individual geographies. It’s about what America is about, Such awareness sets me up to ask questions about just where the rail is and what it does—or sadly, once did. I’m primed to wonder about the tales of lives lived, work done and plans and dreams achieved, or failed.
But as I’ve mentioned, I am always liable to succumb to considering other dynamics and undercurrents too. Ones embracing romance, mystery, and cultural ambience. One more along the lines of what an image can contain that connotes, rather than just basically reports, or delivers as information and fact.
I carry along a wide range of influences. The lore. The songs – popular ones, and more importantly to me, traditional and folk ones, like the FFV, The Wreck of the Old 97, Casey Jones, John Henry, Railroading on the Great Divide, Starlight on the Rails, Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel, &tc.
There are, of course, other influential things involved, like radio programs of the period that offered a mind’s-eye image of the railroad in our lives, and visually, the movies.
Other sorts of stuff that can come into play:
- The quality, and dynamics of what I find, and apprehend, that bear literary undertones; things that might seem to be the setting for, or a fragment of a story.
- The poetics of places and objects; what they can harbor beyond the look of their surfaces.
- Romance, gesture, and lyricism; large objects in motion can move with marvelous grace (even icebreakers can be balletic).
- Then there are the mysteries of destination, departure, and return.
Even grade crossings in the empty American outback fascinate me; the crossing of divergent paths, brief and immediate, erratic and unexpected—so much that is truly human in such a simple, deliberate and mechanical setting.
Click on the image to open in viewer.