After months of work, a project I am quite proud of is about to become available. Nearly a year ago, I was approached by fellow photographer Joel Jensen. Joel has been photographing scenes of the American West for decades, especially images of vernacular landscape such as churches, motels, and railway depots. For this last body of work, Joel issued me a challenge: to write ~10,000 words on the American railway depot to accompany about forty of his images, the whole to occupy an entire issue of the National Railway Historical Society‘s Bulletin,.
Needless to say this was a big task! Joel gave me a pretty free hand to set the details of the piece, so after kicking a few quick ideas around I set to work on one of the biggest single writing projects I’ve undertaken in a while.
To a lover of culture, the American railway depot is particularly fascinating. It is an artifact of the country’s Industrial Age, and as such its changing roles provide a useful yardstick by which to measure vast American cultural shifts. Once the center of the community as well as the prototype of aloof corporate hegemony, the depot has traded its power for a potent and largely misleading symbolism.
Joel’s photographs are a stunning review of this glacial-scale decline in power. From the soaring towers of the grand urban terminals to the defeatism of the so-called “Amshack” platform shelter, Joel captures less the typical nostalgia of loss than the somewhat sharper pangs of regret, neglect, and wanton destruction. There is a certain and potent irony in seeing structures built to last for ages tossed aside like a deer carcass beside the road, not yet a century old. Equally moving are the small rural depots, reduced to poor paint, infrequent service, ignominy, and despair.
To try and capture a sense of that in the words I penned for the piece was a tall order, but I hope I might have at least scratched at the surface of some of the truths buried within Joel’s photos. If you can find a copy — the Bulletin is available online here — please pick it up and let me know what you think.
Last but not least, thanks to Joel Jensen for an excellent collaboration, to Buleltin editor Jeff Smith, and to everyone who made this project possible.