Photo Exploration: “From Inside” Railcar Photo

November 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm

We all have walked on a rail­road, and any of us who have ever taken a photo have prob­a­bly pho­tographed along rail­road as well. Seem­ingly end­less tracks stretch­ing for­ward and back­wards. Merg­ing and diverg­ing curves and impos­si­bly straight lines cut­ting through and rid­ing along the earth. I’m hard pressed to think of a more acces­si­ble metaphor for humanity’s eter­nal strug­gle to con­trol and uti­lize our environment.

I remem­ber some of my first 35mm pho­tos (10th grade, K-1000, 50mm lens…some kind of bulk-loaded b/w film) were of tracks in Natchez, MS. Those neg­a­tives (and all the rest from that age) are unfor­tu­nately lost, but with a lit­tle work I’m sure I could find the same places on again. I likely fol­lowed the tracks from in front of Grandmother’s house down Broad­way, across Canal and into busted up park­ing lots and ram­bling kudzu that led into the bayou.


This image was from a walk with Andrew Fedy­nak on River­side Drive in north Asheville/Woodfin. Andrew is gra­cious to let me bor­row a Mamiya c330 with an 80mm lens, the “nor­mal” lens for that film size. The c330 is the first cam­era I’ve shot that does square for­mat shots, in the 6x6cm size. Shoot­ing with a square viewfinder (and one with­out a pen­taprism to “cor­rect” the view) is a bit star­tling. Beyond the nor­mal left-and-right rever­sal, for the first half of a roll I was tilt­ing my eyes in the viewfinder to see the addi­tional mate­r­ial that would nor­mally be present with the 6x45 or 2x3 ratio formats.

Once I set­tled down into the for­mat, there was an appre­ci­a­tion with the free­dom from hav­ing to fill all that extra space. I could frame a square shot and not to have worry about what’s going on with the edges. I was able to com­pose much tighter, whereas before an image like the one above would have been empty and too center-weighted in a wider format.

Andrew and I walked a good half-mile of track with tem­per­a­tures in the low 50’s and driz­zle all around to get from a park­ing lot to a small set of rail­cars that have been idle for years. I knew to con­serve frames for shoot­ing when we reached the cars, but it took dis­ci­pline to adhere to that behav­ior. I’m a sucker for rails and there were plenty of amaz­ing pho­tos to be had along the way. Shoot­ing a 400 speed film (specif­i­cally Fuji Supe­ria X-Tra 400) was much faster than the usual color film I shoot, and I was enjoy­ing being able to hand hold all my shots. There were aban­doned ties, rocks, switches and more.

But at the cars there was the dis­trac­tion of abun­dance. What to shoot, how to shoot, should I bracket, should I conserve…so many options. There are plenty of other pho­tos from the rail cars, but this last photo before walk­ing back was my favorite. Some­how grass had seeded over four feet in the air into the grime and muck accu­mu­lated inside a car. Every­where were warn­ings on the cars say­ing “Doors Open from Inside” (or some­thing) but I saw those words as a direc­tive for nature to take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sented. Maybe to win a lit­tle space back from the rail­roads we use to carve our way through the nat­ural world.

Print of this piece avail­able for pur­chase here.