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 FedynakÂ 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.Â 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 theÂ opportunitiesÂ presented. Maybe to win a little space back from the railroads we use to carve our way through the natural world.
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