The Addendum

2011: Ten Best Images

It’s almost the end of the year again, and with most of my photography is done, it is once again time to look back and pick out the ten best images of the year.

“Best” is, of course, a rather loose term. In some cases, these are images that are emblematic or reflective of the directions my photography took over the course of the year. In other cases, they are images that simply appealed to me on some more personal level. I’m hardly an objective or unbiased observer, so forgive my skewed and imperfect list.

As with previous 10 bests (see 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010,) the order is chronological, and clicking on the image will yield the image’s Flickr page.

***

1.

Sunset, Astoria
Sunset, Astoria

The setting sun reflects in the mud flats of Astoria, as the Winter tide slowly rolls in from the mouth of the Columbia River. Much of the town’s industry once sat perched over the mud on piers like these, but the ever changing economy has removed most of the docks and warehouses that once perched upon them. In some places, old boilers still stand, remnants of forgotten canneries.

Today, Astoria’s waterfront has far more tourism along it. A large resort hotel has moved in on one pier, and restaurants overhang the water along others. The old rail line now serves as a seasonal trolley route, and a new dock serves visits from numerous cruise ships each year. Yet in spite of this, there is still a pleasant blue-collar atmosphere to the port as well as the city. Cruise passengers reportedly enjoy seeing the large piles of export logs, noting that they feel they are in a real working seaport town instead of just another tourist trap. And unlike almost all of the ocean-side cities of Oregon and Washington, Astoria has a healthy balance of basic economy that keeps it from feeling like a giant, low-rent carnival.

This photograph was made on New Year’s Day, on a brief weekend visit to my favorite coastal town.

2.

First Run
First Run

TriMet 1702, one of two RDCs refurbished for use on the Westside Express Service commuter rail line, at Wilsonville on January 24, 2011, its first day of revenue service. Portland & Western Engineer Ken Nichols leans out of the window for a classic engineer’s pose.

WES is practically in my backyard, a commuter rail service that links outlying Wilsonville with inner suburbs like Tigard and Beaverton. Unfortunately the system was troubled by new equipment that proved to be unreliable at first, and TriMet bought the RDCs — stainless teel self-propelled cars built in the 1950s — as backup power. They are nice in their own way, with a vintage feel inside, though they don’t have the heating and air conditioning power of the newer vehicles, nor their free on board WiFi Internet access.

3.

Gateway to Central Oregon
Gateway to Central Oregon

Here, just outside of Madras, the importance of railroads to small towns was driven home. 100 years to the day, the citizens of Madras celebrate, through a re-enactment, the arrival of the Oregon Trunk Railroad in their town. This event cannot be overstated. Prior to the OT, Madras was a tiny village in an area of ORegon that was largely inaccessible by any modern means, an area the size of Massachusetts. The OT brought the upper Deschuttes River country into the modern world.

After the event, in the cold snows of February, the entire town was invited to visit the depot at Metolius, also celebrating its centennial, and enjoy a community meal. Barbecue, carrot cake, corn, and memories, all served in the freight section of an old railroad station. Oregon at its finest.

4.

Kent, Oregon
Kent, Oregon

Kent is one of a number of towns along US 97 in Central Oregon, north of Madras. Being located on a two lane highway, students of geography would assume that towns such as Kent would have blossomed during the 20th Century. Perhaps they did once, but if so, there is little evidence to show it now. Towns such as Shaniko, Kent, and to a lesser extent Grass Valley and Moro have slowly withered. The Columbia Southern Railroad came here first, but it was always a branch that stubbed at lonely Shaniko; a through route bypassed the branch before the Second World War, and the branch came up in segments, the last remnant gone by the 1960s.

Today, the towns live on as clusters of homes and forsaken, abandoned commercial shacks that huddle at the feet of grain elevators. This pair at Kent is particularly evocative. At the back is a large set of concrete silos, probably dating to mid-century, and now equipped with a brand new digital truck scale. In the foreground is a tall, classic, wooden structure, but built in an interesting form, with big fat boards set flat and interwoven at the corners, like brickwork. Despite its total lack of paint, it seems strong and sturdy, with no outward signs of rot, and has likely been in continuous use for a century. Both structures align to the now gone Columbia Southern, and both hang on as part of the see-sawing grain economy of the region.

Highway or no, Kent, along with the other towns of Sherman County, feels as lonely as any spot I have ever visited in the Northwest. There are mysteries here — a graveyard solely occupied by children, all dead within ten years of each other, lurks to the south of town. There is a sense of isolated, inward lives, of forgotten despair, of dreams unrealized. Perhaps above all else is the stark beauty of the land, the vistas that roll ever onward, and the feeling that the region is far bigger than the mossy, dank, dripping fir tree stereotype that, even in the cities of Western Oregon and Washington, seems so pervasive despite its inaccuracy.

5.

0131-B-021
Tacoma’s Pantheon

2011 saw the centennial of one of the more interesting and also forgotten pieces of architecture in the Northwest, Tacoma Union Station. The building was designed by Reed & Stem, the same firm that gave the world New York’s Grand Central Terminal. For Tacoma, they designed a homage to Rome’s Pantheon, a grand dome standing about 90 feet above the lobby floor, and roofed in with copper. Although not the largest such facility in the region, it was one of the more efficiently designed, and certainly it holds a grandeur that belies its modest footprint. It is no lightweight: its walls are a good fourteen feet thick in places!

Sadly, much like rail passenger service in general, the station declined through the second half of the last century. By the 1980s it was in such bad shape that Amtrak moved out to a new, boring, modern facility further from the center of town, and the building was roped off as unsafe. Intrepid local volunteers, however, rallied support, and after much hard work, restoration of the building was funded. The structure reopened in full glory in 1992, converted to a federal court house.

Here, under the oculus of the dome, hangs another piece of artwork from Tacoma, a chandelier designed by local glass artist Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s glass adorns many parts of the old station, but this central hanging, which resembles a collection of oddities pulled from the sea, is probably the most spectacular. Though vastly different from the mixture of neoclassical and Beaux Arts style of the structure, somehow these sleek forms seem at home here.

Sadly the conversion means the station is no longer a station, which in some ways is a shame; of all the station buildings along the I-5 corridor, none are as impressive or inspiring as this. Yet the structure survives, and its second use guarantees it a long life ahead.

My thanks to the Government Services Administration to allowing access to photograph this structure.

6.

Skylines, Portland: I
Skylines, Portland: I

The skyline photograph is perhaps one of the oldest forms of urban photography. The form could be considered the portrait applied to the city. We all know them. Anyone who ever watches the local news can see them in various forms of quality (or lack thereof) behind the news-anchors. They get used on billboards, in tourist promotions, as web site banners.

This is not, however, the typical Portland skyline. Usually they are shot from near the foot of the Hawthorne Bridge, showing that span and the KOIN tower and the Wells Fargo tower. This view, centered on the US Bancorp Tower, is not usually chosen, but it’s hard to understand the reason why. The city here looks far more impressive, and shot as it is at an oblique angle, the towers are shown to far more advantage. The Hawthorne view is more a side view, and can sometimes seem to be two-dimentional, giving no feel of scope to the city.

There are other, better viewpoints to the city out there, I think. Some still need exploration, but I suspect a view from further north will yield a truer vista of the city as it is now, which, with the South Waterfront and the Pearl, is far, far more urban than it was just a decade ago.

The funny thing is, of course, that nearly every city can be made to look this glittering and glamorous with a skyline photo — is it really true, though? Like a hilltop vista, there is enough distance between the camera lens and the dirty, scroungy, everyday level of life that the flaws seem to disappear. In this view of Portland, you can’t see the crack addicts freezing on the streets of old town, the mentally ill homeless, the immature bar brawls, the catcalls of college frats visiting the city for a wild friday night on the town. Everything looks sweeping, gilded, luscious. It’s the visual equivalent of one of my favorite pieces of syrupy 1960s jazz, Oscar Peterson’s take on “Wandering”.

How real is real? Is the dirty, scroungy, cigarette-butt-littered street view the real Portland? Or perhaps, for all my critical comments, is there also something just as real about idealized views like these? Is there not room for a picture of aspiration? Skylines, after all, are part nostalgia — the myth of who we were or are — and part aspiration, the myth of what we wish we were and wish to be.

7.

Medford, Oregon
Medford, Oregon

We’re a long way from the economy of a century ago. Small factories rarely remain in use, and warehouses hav grown larger and larger and are usually located out by the freeways and served by big rig trucks. In the centers of the small towns that once were the commercial hubs of rural Oregon, the industrial districts, like this one in Medford, are mostly quiet places. The mainline of the railroad makes a bee-line through town, and few spurs now split from it to serve the buildings backing up to the steel road.

8.

Sacramento River Bridge, Redding, California
Sacramento River High Bridge, Redding

Bridges are rarely boring, but rarely are bridges in the agricultural valleys of the Pacific Slope so impressive as this one. Here at Redding, California, the Sacramento River is far below the valley floor, almost in a coulee. To cross it, the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a massive curved steel trestle, only part of which can be seen here. The trees are bare, the Winter sun is shining, and a manifest freight charges northwards towards Oregon.

9.

For the Love of Cars / Ground Zero of Parkinglotopia, Portland, Ore.
For the Love of Cars / Ground Zero of Parkinglotopia, Portland, Ore.

Portland is a postcard city. Much like Vancouver, B.C., it has become an example of urban planning and design for other metropolises across North America. Photographs of our light rail trains, our streetcars, our food carts, our restaurants, our waterfront, our public spaces, our farmers markets, our condominiums, etcetera etcetera etcetera abound.

But there are two sides to every postcard, and this is one of them. Despite our alleged respect for historic structures, we have always been at the bleeding edge of poor decision making, such as tearing down bits of our urban fabric to shove in parking lots. This one was ground zero, “built” (if one can actually “build” a lot) in the 1930s at the expense of a handsome office and commercial building. It is poetic irony that the billboard painted upon the flanking wall advertises for a car dealer.

While there is a ban on new surface parking lots within the downtown, and has been for a very long time, up until the 1970s we continued this horrendously short-sighted trend of trading historic structures for surface parking. Worse, since that time, elected officials, the city government, property owners, and local developers have done absolutely nothing to repair the damage.

Today, some argue that recreations of historic structures are the only appropriate buildings to place into these slots. Others attempt to design sleek, modern structures that evoke more contemporary tastes. Often the best of the proposed replacements have their own potential ripped from them by well intentioned but horridly wrong efforts to force new structures to posses “context,” which means, in plain english, that they must sit down, shut up, and not have any role as buildings in their own right except to not distract from the remaining historic portions.

In truth, all this arguing has done only one thing: maintain the lots as is, places that encourage crime, discourage walking, and lower the value of the most precious and historic core of the city.

10.

SJN Orcas
SJN Orcas

Portland is, despite the popular notions of many, first and foremost a port. Located 100 miles upriver from the Ocean, it may seem unlikely that Portland could be more than a backwater today, a place that barely clings to its maritime roots through legacy and inertia alone. Such is not, however, the case. While almost no container traffic comes or goes from Portland, the public and private terminals of the city are one of the top export ports in the nation. More impressive yet, the amount of grain handed by Portland is greater than any other port on the continent, and the city holds the crown of third largest grain export terminal in the world.

Here, in April, is one of those grain ships: the San Juan Navigation Company Orcas, less than one year old, departing Portland Harbor bound for Asia, riding low in the river from a hold full of Northwest wheat. Downtown hovers on the horizon, and in the foreground, the river bears the shadow of the high Gothic St. Johns Bridge, probably the most beautiful suspension span in the world.

***

Looking at the trends, if any, a few emerge. First is more color: last year was all black-and-white, and this year it’s about 50/50. Indeed, one of the images — number 9 — is color print film, Kodak Ektar 100, part of a test run of this film. While I still find black-and-white a strong part of my work, for the first time in recent memory I’m ending the year still having film in the fridge. I think that my long absence from meaningful quantities of color work has given me a more discerning eye for it. I feel more comfortable with it, and I’ve gotten well past that trap of viewing color itself as a substitute for other, more important things, like composition and purpose.

It may or may not be apparent in the images, but this was also a year of greater intent in each image.
About half the shots here were pre-planned or re-shot as refinements of earlier ideas. There were far fewer cohesive projects, and far more site visits for writing and journalism projects. Lastly, there was more travel: less than half of the images here are from the Portland metropolitan region.

As usual, there are still a few rolls from 2011 undeveloped as I write this, and there are further a number of developed images that are as yet unscanned and uncorrected. Looking forward, I expect a return to more planned projects, but I also expect less photography in general, as the year is already filling with many writing projects.

And next, 2012.

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Review: Steam: An Enduring Legacy


Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen
By Joel Jensen. Essays by John Gruber and Scott Lothes, Afterward by Jeff Brouws. W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110; wwnorton.com; 11.9 x 11.1 x .8 in; hardcover; 160 pages, 135 b/w photos; $50.00

(Full Disclosure: I have previously collaborated with Joel Jensen, the photographer for this book, for a lengthy essay in the National Railroad Historical Society Bulletin, and am presently working with him on a book proposal of my own. My views, therefore, are not entirely objective.)

The railroad, and especially the steam locomotive, has been profound to the American culture. Especially in the Western regions of the U.S., where the railroad was integral to the development of modern civilization, the steam locomotive’s memory lives on in the collective imagination, despite the fact that the such machines ceased to be a meaningful force in the region’s economy more than half a century ago. Their endurance has something to do with their now foreign technological nature — they are devices with their workings on the outside, crude yet elegant mechanical marvels that seem to breathe, seem to have a pulse, seem to be alive. Across the country, dozens upon dozens of steam locomotives survive in working order, cared for by loving and often unpaid crews, and run on numerous tourist and museum railroads. Many photo books on this subjects have been published — the steam locomotive with its built-in special effects is a sort-of camera magnet, after all — but few manage to rise beyond being overwrought photo albums. There is always something slightly treacly, slightly forced about these books, possibly because there is often something of the same nature in their subjects, a feeling of canned history. Yet somehow, Joel Jensen has created a work that surpasses these, a book that shows us preserved steam as merely a continuation of an unbroken tradition going back to the workaday, pre-digital world. In Steam: An Enduring Legacy, Jensen gives us not only a glimpse into a harder, grittier, sweatier side of preserved steam, but also a work of excellent photography that stands as an artistic achievement in its own right.

The book is not a guidebook but an extended photographic journey through the survivors of the steam era. It begins with an essay by writer-photographer Scott Lothes, who provides a brief introduction to the cultural importance of the steam locomotive. The essay tells us the basics, but to anyone with knowledge of railroad history it will provide little new; clearly this is meant as a primer for the uninitiated, and it serves this job well. Following this, the bulk of the photographs appear in a gallery section. Unlike more conventional books in this genre, the photos are not sequenced by time or place. Most of these images are displayed one-per-page, with healthy white margins at all sides. After the photograph section of the book is another essay, this time by John Gruber, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art. Gruber relates an overview of preservation and the steam locomotive, including some interesting tidbits about early, 19th century preservation movements and an able survey of contemporary efforts. He completes his essay with an overview of photography’s relationship with the preserved steam locomotive. An afterword penned by photographer Jeff Brouws follows, with an apt assessment of Jensen’s photographic style. A page of acknowledgements from Jensen complete the work.

I am intimately familiar with the tourist and heritage railway world, and so, despite my respect for the photographer and the authors, I was not anticipating this book to be particularly impressive. Aiding me in this pre-judgement was my familiarity with other works on this subject, as described above. I could not, in the end, have been more wrong. This work is a success that it transcends subject matter interest, and would serve to appeal even to the least nostalgic of railroad enthusiasts, if only they can be convinced to pick it up and look through it past its opening pages.

For these first few pages in, it is all billowing steam and dramatic light, and one might begin to fear that this will be yet one more album in the tradition of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, pleasant in a strawberry milkshake sort of way but not particularly memorable in its own right. It’s not that these dramatic images are bad: they are neither technically nor artistically flawed, but they are also of a genre that is not unfamiliar. But then, on page 22, it all changes in a characteristic Jensen fashion. The photo here, of two large steam locomotives and their long train of passenger cars silhoutted against a damp sky, is one of my favorites from this photographer, and I am disappointed at how small that the image runs in this book; nevertheless it breaks through the romantic bombast and begins a pattern of complex variety that marks this book as something special. Opposite this image is another fine stand-out, an image showing the roughshod nature of narrow gauge railroads, with a wandering pair of steel rails, barely any ties showing, splayed out through a ramshackle landscape, a tiny locomotive working hard to traverse the route. All darks and midtones, with barely a fleck of highlight anywhere, the image is teeth-gnashing and evocative.

The human aspect of these survivors is not neglected, and may in fact be one of the volume’s chief strengths. The careful inclusion of crewmen and other workers is a key aspect of this book’s DNA. From trackworkers hammering in spikes, to groundlings passing hand signals, to roundhouse monkeys wrestling with the oversize parts of these steel behemoths, people are a subtle but integral part to the visual story Jensen lays out for us. Sometimes they are ghostly figures, caught at work amidst the steam, while at other times, such as with a Durango and Silverton crew shown in a photo on page 57, they are cocky, defensive, weary, and proud, staring straight at the camera for a portrait the likes of which is as old as the relationship between the steam locomotive and cameras. Other similarly successful images include a portrait of a crewman for the ATSF 3751 on page 81, a Mount Rainier Scenic engineer on page 124, and mechanical workers from the Durango on 134 and 159. In some cases, these people wear the clothes of railroaders and shop workers for a century, bibs and long-sleeved work shirts and hard steel-toed boots, but in others they sport plastic hard hats and, in the case of the last of these images, modern wrap-around sunglasses. Often, photographers of contemporary steam seek to exclude such modern details, to try and recreate some sense of what they think the past was like, favoring costumes and playacting. Jensen here rejects this, and comes out with material that is intensely modern yet intensely authentic in ways that those seeking the Colonial Williamsburg of steam railroading always fail to achieve. These men look like the railroaders of the past because they are the railroaders of the past, and things like modern sunglasses don’t break the effect because such little trappings cannot contradict authenticity.

Failings? Few. One minor quibble is that the book is exclusively western material, but the book does not strongly acknowledge this regional focus. This said, the book is subtitled as “the railroad photographs of Joel Jensen,” and Joel is a creature of the West, a photographer who is constantly roaming, constantly alone, and who sees the world through different eyes. And in the end, the artistic achievement of the photographer’s work makes complaints about his geographic biases seem trivial.

Overall production values are high, as one would expect in a book from a leading publisher such as Norton. That said, there are a few minor quibbles. The paper seems a tad thinner than I am used to expecting in such a book, so that when darker images are followed by a large white space on the next page, a very faint ghost can be read through the paper. It is, however, barely perceptible, and did not significantly detract from my enjoyment of the book. As for the photos themselves, reproduction is generally of high quality. There are times when I expected more shadow detail, but this is a common failing of black-and-white reproduction in printed matter, and overall Norton has done a great job with this. My only significant quibble with reproduction is with some of the larger images displayed across the gutter; a few, such as the image of an ATSF steam engine passing behind a graveyard on pages 70 and 71, appear rather soft, as if the prints had been scanned and then displayed larger than their original size.

This book at the end of the day is not at all about what it will be labelled as: it is not a photography book about tourist and heritage steam railroads. Instead, it is a book about undying tradition. No work has ever made contemporary steam more noble, more enviable, or harder work. The contradictions and anachronisms of these surviving steam locomotives and the crew that care for them are captured nakedly in Jensen’s photos, showing us something precious, something that is not at all playacting, but instead an unbroken thread to the relationship between man and steam that began on this continent in Antebellum times. This book will be of especial interest to those who appreciate steam locomotives, the interplay of railroads and geography, and the photography of railroads.

Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen is available from Amazon and Powell’s Books.

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New Digs / Good-bye, route99west

For some time now, I’ve had a web site of some form or other on the domain route99west.com. This blog, for example, has sat on route99west.com/addendum/ for something like 5 years, maybe 6. I chose the name for various reasons, including my attraction to Mid Century highway culture, and to the highway of my childhood: Barbur Boulevard, Pacific Highway West, Oregon Highway 99-W, or as it was once before my time and before decommissioning, U.S. Route 99 West.

All things must pass, however. With more and more writing and photography in the works, having a URL of my name became more and more obviously the smart choice, and hanging onto route99west.com became a less and less defensible bit of sentimentality.

So with this post, I am announcing that route99west.com is being wound down, and all its content will now, and likely for a long time to come, be located at alexcraghead.com. This includes The Addendum, now to be found under a new URL, but the same folder: alexcraghead.com/addendum/. The design has been heavily redone as well, with far larger pictures, a slightly slicker gallery function, a bit of juggled organization, and a new section on in-process projects. I anticipate that alexcraghead.com will be a bit more dynamic than route99west.com was.

In the next few weeks, I will remove the old content from route99west.com. The domain I will keep, however — I can’t bear to part with it, though I don’t know what I will use it for. In the meanwhile, update your bookmarks and RSS subscriptions, and welcome to the new site.

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Introducing: My virtual notebook

IMG_6439_small

Yes, I have another blog.

Wow. I typed this months ago, edited and saved it, and pre-set it to automatically publish now. But even back in the depths of the past, I heard you groaning. I can even read your thoughts! See: “Another blog? Why? What are you doing, becoming one of those social media geeks who tries EVERYTHING for about six months but never FINISHES anything?”

Well, actually, it’s not a blog.

Okay, okay, let me explain.

One day I was cleaning up my virtual desktop and I noticed I had a lot of random odds and ends there, mostly in the form of URL shortcuts. These ranged from virtual maps of Oakland, California to Hopper paintings I had never seen before, and all sorts of things in between. One could almost call these links to random cool things. What they had in common? They were all in some way influencing me, my thoughts at the time, or projects I was working on. There were also random files of quotes I have kept over the years which I found interesting. What to do with all this stuff?

One option, of course, would be to share them with others, using an existing social network. For example, I could post them as links on my Facebook account. Or I could share them on my off-again, on-again Twitter stream. Neither of these, however, is convenient for using like an archive, so although they would be easily shared with others, they’d be a pain for me to go looking through if I wanted to see them again. The blog here at The Addendum might work well, as it is easily archivable, tag-able, and searchable. Many other bloggers share random links with their readers too. The Addendum, however, isn’t like that. It’s a blog built around my thoughts and my writing, content that by-and-large I create. While I do sometimes point elsewhere — like when I Promoted Zeb Andrew’s bridge photography, overall I try and keep to the bargain of putting quality written content here first. Stuffing a bunch of short posts of links just doesn’t fit that pattern.

Thus was born my virtual notebook, which lives on Tumblr. (I credit Lincoln Barber for inspiring this idea.) End result? I now have a light and simple place to dump pictures, quotes, and links to things that inspire me or influence me. What won’t be found here are my photos, updates about my work or projects, nor my original writing. Those will continue to live here on The Addendum. I also make no promises about frequency or updates. This is purely my own virtual notebook (almost a scrapbook). However, since it is publicly available, if you’d like to see what I’m reading, looking at, or absorbing, it might be of interest.

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Another new assignment

The Excursion

As a writer, This year has been a rather busy one for me, and now there’s yet another assignment to add to the mix. Effective with the August issue, I am now a columnist for Railfan & Railroad magazine. Titled “Departures,” my monthly column replaces that of the late editor emiritus, Jim Boyd, at the front of every issue.

So just what is Railfan & Railroad, or for that matter what the heck is a railfan? 

To be a railfan is to be someone who has a passion for railroads. While some railfans also work in the rail transportation industry, the vast majority of them simply like railroads. This nterest finds its expression in many ways, ranging from riding trains to collecting rail-related items to making photographs of railroads. These passions can range from casual interest to true obsession. There are people, for example, who are compelled to ride every foot of track they can, even if it means waiting for rare passenger train detour movements or chartering a train. There are people who collect books and ephemera to the extent that their houses begin to resemble the closing scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the ark disappears into a seemingly endless government warehouse of boxes stacked to the rafters. There are people who will, with less than a week’s notice, book a flight to go see and photograph the last run of a once common locomotive on an about-to-be-closed industrial track. Railfan & Railroad is a magazine that specifically caters to the railfan community, in all its geeky glory.

Indeed, “Departures” is a column specifically aimed at highlighting these sort of high-geek raifan acitivites. The column is an exploration of the wide variety of activities that make up this diverse hobby, from the sober and academic to the amusing and absurd, and always just a tad obsessive. I encourage you to pick up a copy, and let me know what you think.

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Photography: Permanent yet Temporary

Mad Men ´The Carousel´ from Emilio on Vimeo.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the purpose of photography, and how it might be shared with others. One of the ideas I just lightly skimmed on was the issue of permanence in photography, a quality that seems, to me, to be somewhat conflicted. 

On one hand, photography is a vital part of documentary. It serves a role in making permanent records. After all, how many of us have our memories of past times preserved through photos? From the Facebook photo album to the 1960s reel of Kodachromes that your parents made on their vacations, photographs have held a traditional role of preserving family history. Likewise, for historians, photographs have provided a vital record of past times, from the natural and built environment to labor practices to cultural norms. Examples of the latter range from landscape photographers like William Henry Jackson and urbanists like Paris’ Atget through to social reformers like Jacob Riis and FSA documentarians Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others. 

At the same time, photographs are highly temporary. The most common popular outlets of photography were — and still primarily remain — newspapers and magazines. Both are publications that are produced frequently and have an implied shelf-life — many magazines even state on their covers the date when they ought to cease to be displayed. Both publications are frequently recycled after a very short duration of existence. Neither format is constructed robustly, as their temporal nature is an accepted part of their formats. Outside of media, prints are often lost, and film negatives often become aged, distorted, and un-useable. Digital images, in theory, are safer from degradation, but there’s some question of what will become of the massive number of digital images photographers — be they the family snap-shooter or the most seasoned professional — over time.

According to the old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words, but as precious as that makes them, they may not last nearly as long. I’m unsure where this leads, except that it reinforces one strong personal and artistic belief: that the photographs we create must have some relevant role now. As precious as documentation is, photography’s best defense is not preservation, but rather in how it can directly affect those who are exposed to it. The purpose may be humble — to record a favorite moment for example — or it may be a part of a grand attempt to alter the viewpoint of society. Or it might be somewhere in between. Regardless, it is purpose that ought to be at the forefront of each and every photographer’s mind — including my own. 

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Outside the box photography outlets

City Guerrillas

Should photographers think more like a guerilla?

Recently, I wrote here questioning the ways that photography is displayed and shared with the public. My basic premise: that the typical ways that photography is shared — the gallery wall, the publication, the web site — are not necessarily the best ways to serve the messages any given set of photographs is meant to undertake.  At the time, I pondered if there might be better ways, and here I want to outline some different possible answers. By no means are these definitive or complete. In fact many of them may be downright impractical. Still, I think that photographers would be well served to consider thinking outside the box, and maybe some of these ideas might spur some better ones.

Billboards. Imagine placing important photographs up on large commercial billboard space. What might the cost be? Would it run more or less than putting on a typical 10+ image gallery show, and/or last about as long? For that matter, how does it compare to the cost of most self-published book runs? And imagine, although only one image could be shown, it would be seen by thousands of people each day, of all walks of life and all sorts of positions in society. Before, dear reader, you dismiss the idea as crazy, consider: some artists are already doing this.

Online multimedia videos. Although I’m discussing the sharing of still images, multimedia presentations combining audio and still images — especially if accompanied by well done and appropriately crafted narration — can be a powerful effect. There’s a reason why Apple’s iMovie has a built-in effect known as the Ken Burns effect. Faced with making films about eras of American history that predated movie cameras, Burns found ways to combine still images, music, and narration to powerful effect. And video is one of the most popular methods of entertainment on the web, as evidenced by the strength of YouTube‘s hit counts. A compelling multimedia presentation has potential to reach audiences who would otherwise not feel engaged by a conventional web thumbnail gallery of still images. (I made one for the Portland Switching District Project.)

Temporary projection. Fellow writer Dan Haneckow mentioned this idea to me while we were working together on an architectural history project. Using a digital projector, images — in our original concept images of buildings that are now gone — could be projected onto structures or other large surfaces. Imagine a rotating series of images displayed against the blank wall of a building, or even downward against pavement. While temporary, such displays would draw huge amounts of attention from all manner of people, hooking them in to see what the image is and understand its significance. 

Guerilla publication. While the conventional bound book has a place and a value, it has limited reach, thanks in part to its high cost. Imagine instead publications of small size, but made free. Sure, printing and selling postcards has been around forever, but who says there has to be a price-tag? Imagine hundreds, even thousands of postcard sized prints, left randomly at bookstores, coffee shops, community centers, libraries — anywhere, really. No, nobody will make money off this deal, but free stuff gets taken, and maybe in the process those photos will live on in people’s homes or places of work, where they will be seen, appreciated, and perhaps understood. For a little more, small 4-8 page booklets could also be produced to the same purpose, with even greater likelihood of being kept and appreciated. 

What other unconventional ways might photos be shared, and therefore find meaning and purpose?

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Recent publications update

The Portland Switching District Project: An Overview (NRHS Bulletin, Spring 2011)

Fresh from the post and the printers: the “Portland Switching District Project: An Overview” in the National Railroad Historical Society Bulletin

It’s been a busy spring, and there’s a few more publications to add to the list. First up: “The Portland Switching District Project: An Overview,” in the Spring issue of the National Railroad Historical Society Bulletin. This is a short text and twelve photos from the series. Unlike the recent show, this article contains images from throughout the switching districts of the Portland area. Many thanks to Bulletin editor Jeff Smith for helping this one fly. Although you cannot find the publication on a newsstand, you can purchase them as back issues directly from the NRHS here for $4, which is a great deal.

I shouldn’t pass on from this topic without also noting that the remainder of this issue is taken up by two great articles by photographer and thinker Jeff Brouws. The first of these is an article on the railroad as landscape, and is illustrated with numerous of his own photographs, along with those of other talented photographers such as Keith Burgess, Wayne Depperman, John Fasulo, Phil Hastings, my friend Scott Lothes, Greg McDonnell, Kevin Scanlon, and the late Richard Steinheimer.

This last name brings up some sad news. If you are a follower of railroad photography, you likely already know that Richard Steinheimer, known affectionately as “Stein”, died on May 4th. The Center for Railroad Photography and Art has been running a tribute to the man on its web site. In addition, in cooperation with Trains Magazine, the Center is running a two part collection of remembrances of the man by other railroad photographers. My own contribution will be up in part two, but for now, I encourage you to read part one, and gather a glimpse of how much the man meant as a photographer, and to those who were fortunate to known him personally, as a human being.

Also while I’m on the subject, I have never taken the time to sum up the Center’s 2011 “Conversations About Photography” conference. The event took place in the middle of last month, and I was privileged to be a part of making it happen. The conference is without question the most interesting rail photography event in North America, and well worth attendance. This year, one of my main tasks was to “live-cast” the event on the Center’s Facebook page. If you’ve been thinking of going, visit there and scroll back to mid April for a bit of flavor of what it’s about. And before I move off this subject, thanks to everyone at the Center — and especially to John Gruber — for including me as part of the team!

For the May, 2011 issue of Trains, I wrote a news story on the continuing efforts of Portland’s Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation to construct a permanent museum complex near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Also in May, I wrote the lead editorial for Railfan & Railroad Magazine’s issue on Amtrak 40th anniversary. My piece, titled “Amtrak against all odds” examines the nation’s rail passenger carrier today, and makes the case that contrary to conventional wisdom, it has been a brilliant success, as it has held the line against politics and kept the American passenger train from disappearing forever.

For June publications — which in the strange world of publishing has been on the newsstands for two weeks now — the theme is Tacoma, Tacoma, Tacoma. Trains ran a piece on Tacoma’s Union Station, what may be the greatest railway architecture Cinderella story in the Pacific Northwest. This story for Trains focused on the Herculean efforts of those who restored the station, and includes interview material with Jim Merritt, an architect who, in the process of working on the station restoration, undertook some of the craziest stunts I’ve heard of in the name of historic preservation. For Railfan, I produced a smaller story on the importance of the station to the Tacoma community; this one can be viewed online, and includes interior images of the facility, which is now a federal courthouse.

I’ve also been writing a lot of op-eds for the front-of-book in Railfan, filling in after the death of Editor Emeritus Jim Boyd, who previously penned the space. Following the Amtrak column were two more, the first on the mixture of craziness and historic importance that railfanning sometimes plays, and the second on the value of spending time photographing railroads that are more rural and obscure.

Lastly, I have a small feature coming up in Railfan on the Tacoma Link streetcar. The article will be part of the magazine’s Tacoma-focused July issue, in honor of the NRHS national convention in Tacoma from June 20-26.

It’s been a busy spring!

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Ultimate Intent?

E. 2nd Avenue

East Second Avenue, 2008. From the the Portland Switching District Project.

This April, I completed the run of my first photo exhibit, a short preview show of selected images from the Portland Switching District Project. The show was hosted at the offices of the City Club of Portland, one of the oldest and most respected civic institutions in the Portland metropolitan region.  

This exhibit did not happen as the culmination of (much less a part of) some larger planned process. Instead, it was an organic outgrowth of the switching district project. Having spent over a year of concentrated work photographing the subject of the disappearing traces of the city’s urban industrial past, I was faced with a conundrum: what now? What to do with all of these images, now that the project was completed? A series of developments — including a call for temporary art exhibits at the City Club — resulted in the show, and I hope will result in another, larger version next year, in the city’s Central Eastside Industrial District, where many of the images were made. 

Is this, however, serving the best interests of the photographs? And what really is their purpose anyway?

Photography is widely varied. Some people are photographers because they want to explore their inner selves, to express emotion or complex inward thought. Others want to document, to preserve in images traces of the world they see around them. Others want something in between, a hybrid mix that is all about telling a story. I previously outlined this basic tripartite theory of photography — expressive, narrative, and documentary — in a story I wrote about detail imagery and the railroad for Trains.com and the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.

For me it is that third, middle way of narrative that matters to me most. It may be no surprise, then, that the most seen photos I have made are those that were published, often beside text-based narratives I wrote, and (to-date) always in periodicals of one form or another. 

For the switching project, documentary is a bit more prominent in my motives than usual, and I am forced to consider what the best way of sharing them is. After all, if these photos merely sit in a box — in this case a hard drive — do they serve the purpose I intended? Do they reach out and tell the story of Portland’s heritage, of the city’s industrial roots? In some ways, storing them implies a value to the images that is more vain than if they were shared, as when something is shared it belongs to the beholder and not just the maker. 

So few images actually are shared, though. Far more photos die ignominious deaths as hard drives crash, orphaned photo albums get donated to Goodwill, or slide collections get tossed into a dumpster. The vast majority of them have their ultimate value to society unfulfilled. To have my photos sit on a hard drive, stored in some semi-altruistic hope that a future historian will value them, then that is in my view a personal and artistic failure. It’s like performing a play to an empty room. 

In this regard, the show at the City Club was a step in the right direction. Here, for a month, they were able to be seen by the public at large. Who, though, goes to gallery exhibits? A select few — even more so a self-selected few. Web sites? These images have been available on the Internet for almost three years, but such digital presentations generally are about as effective as tossing 3×5 prints of the images out third story window in the middle of downtown — the Net is just too vast, too full of competing eye candy, time waster, and the like to be effective on its own as a way of telling this story. What about a book? That would be even more self selecting, even more limited in its reach, although it would at least be less transitory than the former two options. 

This is a question larger than the switching project, and larger than my photography. This goes to the heart of what photography is, and what role it plays in society. Put another way, what is the ultimate intent of the photos we as photographers make? Might the gallery / web site / book formula not be the best way to use our images to tell the stories we wish to tell? And if not, what might be a better way?

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It begins again

Recently, my life got pretty darn hectic. I made a mad dash to Chicago for the Center for Railroad Photography and Art conference, as I previously noted, and then made a mad dash back just in time to start a new three-month, full time gig. As a result, my schedule became nuts, and I’m once again a morning person — who knew?

There’s nothing like a regular job to clear your head and make you remember what it’s all for. After four days of burning my candle at both ends, I knew that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a life that was just about cubicles and commuting, where my evening hours were spent sitting in front of yet another computer.

Then inspiration struck me. Go back to meaning, Alex. Find what is meaningful, go back to the source.

It begins again

Back at the CRPA conference, Lew Ableidinger got a chance to give a presentation on his photography. Make no bones about it, I admire Lew’s work very much — you can see more on his Flickr page, where I swear I’ve favorited every fourth photograph he’s posted — but since Lew is of my generation, I had to give him a hard time during the Q&A. And although we aren’t close friend per se, I knew Lew well enough to know he had just picked up a new acquisition: a large format camera. For those uninitiated in the obscurities of pre-Digital SLR photography, the large format camera is that cartoon camera, the one with gigantic bellows up front and that requires a hefty tripod to hold. They can take a long time to set up, the film for them is expensive due to its size, and all in all they are a slowwwwwwww choice in cameras. So I stood up and I asked Lew if, because of this acquisition, he had gone crazy.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I understood Lew’s choice all too well. (Apparently I wasn’t alone; my crazy comment drew more than one attendee to inform me that they, too, owned and used a large format camera.) You see, for me, there’s just not much satisfaction in pixels. After a weekend of making random snapshots to promote the conference on the Center’s Facebook page, I was pretty sick of my beloved Canon G9. It was easy, sure. It was almost instantaneous. But it had none of the things that brought me to photography. It had no craft.

The source of photography, for me, was painting. For years, cameras were no more than mechanical sketchbooks that helped me produce works in watercolor. It was on the stippled, slightly acrid smelling surface of cotton-based paper that I learned the rules of composition, the way that colors compliment or clash, and the idea of visual storytelling.

And, perhaps, it is the tactile elements of painting that lead me to so strongly hold onto film photography. The act of printing under an enlarger, the sheer daredevil analog imprecision of the print, the multiple intangibles and unknowns that I must dance around for each image: these are the aspects of black-and-white photography I fell in love with. These are the reasons that I long for the day I have a darkroom of my own.

But, back to this week. Feeling a bit run down, a bit worn thin, and a bit lost, I realized that there was one place I could find myself in again. And so last night, all that was on my desk was removed, and then tonight, after I got home, out came the stipple-surfaced French paper, out came the finely sharpened Stadtler 2B, out came the kneaded gum eraser and the sharpener and the T-square and the ruler. Even without starting, even just seeing the paper laying there on the surface of my desk, awaiting the touch of my fingertips, I could feel the mood change in me. Painting is, perhaps, a kind of meditation all of its own. And then the pencil was out, and the lead laid down on the paper, and the smell of fresh wood shavings and graphite filled the room.

And it all began again.

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