I’ve always felt that time and loss are integral to community. It is the passage of time and the changes — losses — that time brings that makes a sense of place more palpable. To be in a place one has never been before carries a kind of excitement and wonder, but to return to a place — especially after the passage of time — is an entirely different sort of sensation. The tart edge of freshness is worn away, and deeper, nuanced subtleties become more visible. Partly this is because of the thoughts, feelings, and ripening of memories that takes place between the first visit and the next, but much of it, too, is created through the changes wrought by time.
When I think of time, change, and photography, there’s one artist who comes to mind above all else: David Plowden. I recently wrote about Plowden’s railroad photography for the Railfan and Railroad “Extra Board.” Plowden is widely known for his being “one step ahead of the wrecking ball” as he photographs the fading remnants of Industrial Age America. The latest installment of this visual obsession is the book Requiem for Steam, which is now available in local bookstores.
Recently, Plowden went on Iowa Public Radio to talk about steam locomotives, photography, and this latest book. The interview is 49 minutes long, but well worth making time to listen to. It made for a good start to this Monday with my morning tea. Plowden has a mesmerizing voice and a lively edge to his words; you can tell them man is truly passionate about what he photographs.
Plowden had no intention of being a photographer: he wanted to be “a railroad man.” When he went to university, he studied economics with the hope of becoming a railroad executive. “This was a terrible mistake,” he notes, “it really wasn’t the business end of railroading that interested me, it was the romance.” This was, in some ways, the “never-meet-your-heros” moment for Plowden, and his career in the railroad industry was short. Working for the Great Northern in Willmar, Minnesota, he ended up being promoted away from the locomotives and into the offices; shortly afterwards he quit.
This decision has a lot of resonance with me. I’ve had my Willmar moment as well, and learned very rapidly that I had little interest in the sterile, insular, acerbic environment that is the modern railroad. (That Plowden emerged with his longing for the romance of railroading intact is a small miracle.) Photographers, I think, have a hard time relating to the world as a functioning part of it. We feel more comfortable behind the camera, observing, recording, judging, praising, condemning, hoping. Or am I alone in feeling that way?
I could go on relating Plowden’s early photographic career chasing the last pulse-beats of the steam railroad, or his self-described “brazenness” that made it possible, but I’d be ruining the interview for you. Listen to it, even if you aren’t interested in steam locomotives. Learn from it how this photographer thinks about the images he makes, and how to approach subjects, and having purpose in ones photography.
And for those who can swing a bit of travel this week, Plowden will be in Sacramento for two events, the first a fundraiser for the Center for Railroad Photography and Art on Thursday night, and the second being a book-signing event on Saturday. Both will be at the California State Railroad Museum. I’ll be attending both events, and I encourage anyone else who can to do the same.