THE RAILROAD WORLD
Overview. This series focuses on capturing what I call the “Railroad World,” the insular environment that the railroad and its employees exist within. The series reflects my reaction against the dominant romanticized imagery of mainstream railroad photography. Images shown here represent just a small sample of the project as it existed in Spring 2010.
Intentions. What I want to capture with this series is the sense of the Railroad World. I am not interested in the locomotives, buildings, cars, etcetera per se, but in the totality of the experience of being on the inside of the railroad, rather than the outside. While some aspects of the project are documentary, it is also an experiential project that emphasizes psychological content.
Influences. This series is influenced by two main sources, one being the writings of Linda Niemann, and the other being my own brief experience working for the railroad industry.
Linda’s writings place this idea of the Railroad World in the very center of understanding the railroad landscape. With unusual work hours and jobs that range from the center of cities to the most bleak and barren of locations, railroad employees exist within an entirely different social community than the average citizen. Her non-fiction prose explores this often overlooked, gritty aspect of railroading, and I hope to capture some inkling of the same ideas within my photographs.
The other influence was my brief time working for the railroad industry. As an employee, I got to experience the “other side of the curtain,” and that permanently altered how I look at rail subjects. It broke me of many romanticized notions, and exposed me firsthand to the fatigue, pain, and loneliness that is typical of the industry. Again, these are all aspects of railroading that are rarely captured by railroad photographers, or if they are they are not often placed in center stage.
Subject. I view this project as an almost cinematic one, as if I were creating a collection of still images that, strung together, composed a whole akin to a film. The protagonist is an anonymous railroader, and we see the Railroad World from his or her perspective. The photos, then, are to be of scenes that are typical of the railroader’s daily work and life, including the railroad itself and possibly also portions of home life, such as it is.
Primarily I shun the railroad mainline as a subject, as it doesn’t provide enough context to achieve my goals. Besides, many fine shots have been made from locomotive cabs, including some nice time exposures made from moving trains. That’s not the world of my memory and its not the world I am seeking to document.
Style. Since I wish to emphasize point-of-view at a human scale, many of the scenes are shot from very close distances, and often times I will utilize an extremely shallow depth-of-field in order to mimic the shallow depth-of-field of the human eye when viewing an object closely. I favor viewpoints that are low not high, and that are “looking out” from the tracks at the world, rather than the more typical opposite.
Most of these images are also made with wide-angle lenses. While this is not unique to this project, my employment of them is slightly different than in the past. I still utilize two-subject compositions, but now instead of the primary subject being distant and framed by a secondary subject, the primary subject tends to be close by and the secondary subject is not a framing device or a secondary object, but an entire scene. Again, building off a theatrical analogy, this is like a backdrop to a play, providing supporting context.
So far, I have not shown railroad workers and I am unsure if I will choose to include any in the future. Most of contemporary railroading is done alone, the engineer up in the locomotive cab and the conductor working on the ground.
From a higher level, these images are fairly expressionist. They capture mood as much if not more than fact. In many ways they recall a Modernist aesthetic, with an emphasis on anomy and ennui.
At the same time, however, I feel it is important that they tell the truth not just experientially but factually as well. I want the images of the series to have a feel not of fantasy but of raw honesty. The best metaphor is the feeling of fatigue mid-way through a graveyard shift, when things are simultaneously real and dream-like. The choice of black-and-white film as a medium for the series bridges these two traditions, recalling both the expressionist heritage of fine arts photography and the documentary realism of Mid-Century photojournalism.
So far, more than three-quarters of the images in this series were created first as concepts and then shot to suit these concepts. In some cases, the shots began as sketches for an idea, after which sites were scouted for suitability to fulfill the idea. Some images were made as secondary or “opportunity” photographs while fulfilling a conceptualized image.
Technique. As previously mentioned, this series is shot on black-and-white film. Film type and speed varies depending on the needs of the specific scene being photographed.
I have chosen 35mm as the format for primarily pragmatic reasons; I have the necessary equipment and film is readily available. Images were made with nearly every 35mm camera I have access to. Although I am primarily using 35mm SLRs, the images from this series are rarely shot from the hip, photojournalism style. Instead, most images were made with great intention using a tripod for extra stability and compositional control.
Currently none of these images have been printed. All image seen here were made via commercial negative scan services. No adjustments have been made to them with photo editing software beyond the initial scan and inversion. As such some of these digital versions lack the dynamic range that final prints will have. As I do not at this time have access to a darkroom, I am concentrating on creating negatives for this series rather than investing in setting up for and printing the images.
Outlet. This series was created with no specific outlet in mind, however I feel that it contains some of my best work. I am considering alternatives at this time, although I am unsure if I would be willing to submit this work for publication until I have made prints from it.
Status. Currently I have shot about 10-15% of the planned concepts. I anticipate this will be a long term project, with completion of the shooting phase in perhaps 2-3 years.