Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs
By Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton. W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110; wwnorton.com; 7.3 x 9.4 x 1.2 in; hardcover; 288 pages, 2 b/w photos; $39.95
The act of collecting was once a particularly strong trait in Anglo-American culture. Much of my childhood was spent in the 1980s, before the Internet era, when kids—and especially boys—were still expected to busy themselves with hobbies that generally involved some form of collecting. I never traded baseball cards—mine was a football household, poor benighted fans of the Seattle Seahawks—but there were other milieus: coins, stamps, agates. And then there were the adults. My grandfather, for example, seemed to be a magnet for early Pacific Northwest mountaineering memorabilia, though this was not his most unusual collection. That prize went to rocks. As in pure, genuine, plain rocks. If he travelled anywhere interesting—Mount Hood, the Olympic Mountains, Canada, the Oregon Coast—a humble rock would get tossed into the trunk. Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton’s new book, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs, is about the obsession of such collection, in this case of the amateur photographs of railroads.
The railroad has had a profound influence on American culture, and is a subject of much veneration in popular history. The chase of The General across the battlefields of the U.S Civil War, the joining of the transcontinental railroad with a gold spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869, and the tragic 1900 death of locomotive engineer Casey Jones in a collision in Mississippi are all well known pieces of American folklore. More than a half century after the last mainline steam railroad laid low its coal fires and converted to economical, unromantic diesel power, the steam locomotive remains so evocative that it is the chief avatar of railroads in the public consciousness. Railroads help define the nation’s identity as much as do those apocryphal stories about Ben Franklin catching lightning in a jar or George Washington chopping down cherry trees.
It should then come as no surprise that the American railroad—like the U.S. Civil War, or Route 66, or the All American Game of baseball—has a cult following, with its own genre of writing, photography, and art. For many years, Brouws and Burton have been chronicling the photographic output of this American rail enthusiast subculture, primarily concentrating on prolific and accomplished photographers whose work rose beyond the norm in technical and artistic merit.
Yet even as this talented pair helped shepherd monographs of railroad photography’s “high art” achievements towards publication, Brouws found his interests were also being drawn towards photographs made for purposes other than artistic expression, and yet which sometimes bent towards visual lyricism in spite of themselves. These were, to misapply a bit of T. S. Elliot, “the useful presents,” workaday photos of railroad facilities made for assessing property and equipment value, or documentary images of accidents and wrecks, or sometimes random vacation snapshots. Hi mom, I’m at the Grand Canyon, and oh look, we saw a train by the motel! The bulk of the images that appealed to Brouws, however, were the images made by railway enthusiasts. These images typically placed the locomotive, with billowing steam and smoke, front and center, and were usually printed on small stock, often two-by three inches, about the size of a business card or—and the parallel should not be overlooked here—baseball cards.
In the introduction to the book, Brouws describes the budding of this new obsession, at a 2002 visit to a railroad memorabilia swap meet in Springfield, Massachusetts. There, he wandered the aisles with “a crowd of wide-eyed rail buffs jammed into the space,” not quite knowing why he was there. Then came the fateful moment, when he happened upon stacks and stacks of photographs. Brouws “became hooked,” and soon began to sort through them looking for images that appealed to him the most. The images were largely anonymous, with few bearing a signature or photographer name, though more than one held an accidental poetry of data: “notations, inscribed on their versos in an elegant script, delineated the arcane language of locomotive wheel arrangements” or “concise histories of moribund railroads….”
Best of all was a happy coincidence of counter-purpose taste and sheer volume. Most of the crowd at the show were model railroaders, and as such sought out images that showed the details of the subjects in the clearest lighting conditions. Brouws, however, was drawn towards the “artful” images in the mix, those with strong compositions, unusual moody atmospheres, or broader context. These images, while pleasing, made poor reference material, and so were in abundance among the stacks. Meanwhile the sheer quantity of such images made resulted in prices often shockingly low: five dollars, one dollar, many times even fifty cents! “In this age of online auctioning,” writes Brouws, “where every material object known to man… [is a] ‘collectable’—bringing with it the fact that nothing is cheap anymore…. it was a collector’s dream come true…..” So began ten years of image collecting.
Brouws and Burton’s book represents the fruit, though not the cessation, of this collection. The volume, with its unusual squat format, fits in the hand like a hardback novel, inviting a fireside consultation in a fat, overstuffed chair. It is filled with a diverse range of imagery from the attics of America, a scrapbook of the everyday railroad, with a subtle and pensive layout and sequencing that is owed to the visual talents of Burton, who designed the book. Images like William Rittase’s bird’s eye view of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s yards in Philadelphia (plate 147) are mesmerizing, with a sea of boxcars and a gritty sky that looks like the work of a monochromatic alter ego of J. M. W.Turner. Other images show a kind of spontaneity that imparts life: the image of Southern Pacific Railroad employees riding atop boxcars in Los Angeles (plate 131), photographer unknown, is almost certainly a quick snapshot taken by a railroad tower operator out his window, a random slice of happenstance that speaks to us across the untold years. All of the photographs have an uncooked, unstudied honesty. How many of them have been passed by in all those railroad swap meets, discarded for their subtle blurs, their clipped off portions of equipment, their flaws that make them so delightful?
While the bulk of the book may be a testament to the compulsion to collect such images, it also provides insight into the development of railroad photography, with a perspective that may never have been adequately addressed before. Brouws notes in his introduction that many of the enthusiast photos were distributed via clubs formed, in part, for that purpose, organizations such as the International Engine Picture Club, the National Railway Historical Society, and others. These were “analogous to contemporary social networking, with the United States Postal Service rather than the Internet acting as the delivery mechanism.” Today, railroad photography, as well as photography in general, is rapidly being redefined by Internet-based outlets and tools. Within the subculture, Railpictures.net has changed how the average railfan thinks of “publishing” and what to do with photographs once made, just as sites such as Flickr and 500px and mobile photo sharing tools like Instagram are completely changing how the general public uses photographs, as well as how we collectively define “good” photography. Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs offers a glimpse into another, earlier era of populism in photography, and shows the spectacular output as well as the sadly neglected present-day value of a truly massive body of photographic material. Pause and consider a moment: of the unnumbered bulk of amateur railroad photographs made over the first half of the 20th Century, the average image is easily found at a swap meet, with no record of its time, place, subject, or photographer, and offered for purchase at less than you can buy a cup of coffee. Or a candy bar. Or, really, less than you can buy anything anymore. Populism in photography exploded the amount of railroad material available to be seen, but it also resulted in poorly archived material and a general lack of social value. What parallels this may hold for our present, Instagram era of populist photography is a question worth pondering.
With no regional focus and no narrowing of subject matter, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is ultimately art history, not railroad history. Among railroad enthusiasts, whose tastes bend notoriously towards the esoteric and the specific, I fear too many will pass the volume by. This would be a sad loss. Even taken merely as a book of general Americana and railroadiana, this volume stands out head and shoulders above the vapid output of mass-market picture book makers and in-house bookstore presses. More than that, for those who care about making images of railroads, its introduction is probably one of the greatest contributions to the history of railroad photography published in the last decade, and the images that support it are delightful, surprising, charming. Those who make acquaintance with this book will ultimately come to appreciate that charm. Those who don’t? They will pass by, sadly blind to these agates among the beach stones.