Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century
Narratives by Linda Grant Niemann, Photographs by Joel Jensen. Indiana University Press, 601 North Morton Street, Bloomignton, IN 47404; http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/; 11.3 x 9.1 x 0.8 in; hardbound; 168 pages, 23 color and 17 b/w photos, 1 map; 39.95
In American culture, the railroad is often viewed as a collection of marvelous technical feats, of brutish powerful locomotives hurtling thousands of tons of freight at great speeds. Beyond this technical and technological aspect, however, the railroad has always been a place of people, a machine sure, but a machine run by human beings. Thanks to social and technological changes, however, the railroad worker of today is no longer seen or heard from on a daily basis. Instead, they exist inside a closed, wholesale-side world, one that runs 24/7/365 but largely out of view of the public consciousness. Linda Niemann, a former brakewoman on the Southern Pacific, seems more adept than any other contemporary writer at cracking open this insular, often nocturnal world to outsiders. In Railroad Noir, Niemanns’s third book, she again plunges readers into the realms of the railroad world through a series of short non-fiction narratives, accompanied by the moody, pensive imagery of photography Joel Jensen.
Following the acknowledgements is a brief introduction shared between the writer Niemann and the photographer Jensen, primarily discussing how the book came into being after many years working together on articles. The book then launches into the heart of the matter, 20 stories or life on the railroad by Niemann. The first ten are each accompanied by a single opening image from Jensen in black-and-white. Following this group comes a gallery of 21 color images and a map of the Southern Pacific system, Neimann’s former employer. The map, though handy, seems slightly incongruous slapped down here in Jensen’s photos, and would have made more sense at one end or the other of the book. Next come two short stories that begin with color images, and then seven more stories accompanied by black-and-white photographs. One chapter, “Lord of the Night,” is accompanied by a photograph of an apparently ancient drawing of a Native American god; it is unclear whose photograph this is as it is not accompanied by a location, does not fit Jensen’s usual style or subject matter, and is not included in the publisher’s official count of photos in the book. A glossary of railroad terms rounds out the work.
Railroad Noir is essentially an anthology of Niemann’s stories. Some of these were printed previously as parts of her first book, Boomer, or in the pages of TRAINS Magazine (where they were likewise accompanied by the photos of Joel Jensen). Niemann’s writing is intense and often poignant as she tells tales of the hidden underclass who populate the railroad. Her personal landscape is made up of dry, dingy built spaces, vast and terrifyingly beautiful desserts, and windblown openness. This is not the ordinary America we all see and experience, but a private, clannish world, a refuge for the people who, as Niemann puts it, are “on the borders” of life. She is brutally honest and raw with her descriptions of her co-workers lives, from drug addiction to sexual problems and alcoholism. Niemann is no finger-wagger, however, and spends considerable time examining her own life with all of its flaws and mistakes. Yet at no time does Niemann come off as moralizing. She presents this world not without a judgement for or against it, but instead with a kind of documentarian’s sensibility. The railroad world and its inhabitants, to Niemann, are a microcosm of humanity that has value and should be recorded and understood. Her writing is both open and slightly sentimental, which only adds to the complexity and confusion over what to think of this part of society.
The pairing of the text with Jensen’s photos is very complimentary, as Jensen has a gritty loner’s eye that immediately makes the viewer feel like both an insider and an outcast. Images like “Mechanics on break” on page 62 or “Truck stop” on page 110 speak loudly of the isolation of this world view. More poignant, however, are the two images of railroad workers walking in the snow towards their motels, “Off duty” on page 70 and “Home away from home” on page 71. Both have an eerie, unearthly glow to them from a world lit only by off-color, man-made light. Beyond these pools of glow, in the blackness, there is, perhaps, another world out there sleeping, but if so it is one which the denizens of the railroad have no part or place in.
The format of the book is much like a photography book, not a book of text, and as a result it sometimes feels that there are not enough photos from Jensen. Beyond that, the book could also have benefitted from more images to help a fresh reader develop a better understanding of the tone of the world that Niemann is describing. As far as the text, Niemann continues to give us compellingly written stories of her time on the railroad. Occasionally, however, she delves into unusual side-jaunts away from the railroad — one such jaunt takes us with her to Mexico where she learns Spanish by immersion. It is only after a few of these narrative sidebars occur that the reasoning becomes clear: this is not a topical book about life on the railroad, but rather a memoir of someone who worked for and lived in the railroad world. In some ways, this limits the book, as an audience seeking a more topical focus might find these side-jaunts to be distracting. As a method of carrying forward a sense of authenticity, however, the decision to include these extra-railroad memories is quite effective. The title, however, remains deceptive: “Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century” does not very well convey that the book is, in fact, a highly personal biographical narrative. These are minor quibbles, however, and both the narrative and the images chosen are all top-notch work.
Fit and finish shows the book itself is a quality product. Photo reproduction looks to be good, and color is consistent and fresh. No image is spread across two pages, a stylistic choice that retains the power of most of the photos but at the price of displaying them rather small. The paper is solid and thick and should hold up well, but it also has an odd, rubbery feel to the fingers. The size of the book is moderate — its horizontal frame will fit on a standard shelf — but there are some odd quirks resulting from this format choice. Although this is basically a book of stories accompanied by some photographs, this size makes it inconvenient to take as a piece of travel reading. It is also not ideal to read in your lap in an armchair, or in bed. Despite the fact that it is a fairly small coffee-table book, a coffee-table book it remains, and it feels best to read it at a table. This is not exactly the most comfortable place to spend time getting lost in Niemann’s compellingly penned world.
Overall, Railroad Noir is an interesting book with some sophisticated photos and a moving set of narratives. Photographers may find the book a good addition to their collection, but this is not primarily a photography book and it is certainly not a pictorial aimed at a typical railfan market. The book should prove interesting to those with an interest the human and social sides of railroading as well as those who enjoy railroad literature. .