, October 17, 2011
(view all comments by Alexander Craghead)
The railroad, and especially the steam locomotive, has been profound to the American culture. Especially in the Western regions of the U.S., where the railroad was integral to the development of modern civilization, the steam locomotive’s memory lives on in the collective imagination, despite the fact that the such machines ceased to be a meaningful force in the region’s economy more than half a century ago. Their endurance has something to do with their now foreign technological nature -- they are devices with their workings on the outside, crude yet elegant mechanical marvels that seem to breathe, seem to have a pulse, seem to be alive. Across the country, dozens upon dozens of steam locomotives survive in working order, cared for by loving and often unpaid crews, and run on numerous tourist and museum railroads. Many photo books on this subjects have been published -- the steam locomotive with its built-in special effects is a sort-of camera magnet, after all -- but few manage to rise beyond being overwrought photo albums. There is always something slightly treacly, slightly forced about these books, possibly because there is often something of the same nature in their subjects, a feeling of canned history. Yet somehow, Joel Jensen has created a work that surpasses these, a book that shows us preserved steam as merely a continuation of an unbroken tradition going back to the workaday, pre-digital world. In Steam: An Enduring Legacy, Jensen gives us not only a glimpse into a harder, grittier, sweatier side of preserved steam, but also a work of excellent photography that stands as an artistic achievement in its own right.
The book is not a guidebook but an extended photographic journey through the survivors of the steam era. It begins with an essay by writer-photographer Scott Lothes, who provides a brief introduction to the cultural importance of the steam locomotive. The essay tells us the basics, but to anyone with knowledge of railroad history it will provide little new; clearly this is meant as a primer for the uninitiated, and it serves this job well. Following this, the bulk of the photographs appear in a gallery section. There is no set sequence, with the subjects bouncing back and forth through time and geography. Most of these images are displayed one-per-page, with healthy white margins at all sides. After the photograph section of the book is another essay, this time by John Gruber, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art. Gruber relates an overview of preservation and the steam locomotive, including some interesting tidbits about early, 19th century preservation movements and an able survey of contemporary efforts. He completes his essay with an overview of photography’s relationship with the preserved steam locomotive. An afterword penned by photographer Jeff Brouws follows, with an apt assessment of Jensen’s photographic style. A page of acknowledgements from Jensen complete the work.
I am intimately familiar with the tourist and heritage railway world, and so, despite my respect for the photographer and the authors, I was not anticipating this book to be particularly impressive. Aiding me in this pre-judgement was my familiarity with other works on this subject, as described above. I could not, in the end, have been more wrong. This work is a success that it transcends subject matter interest, and would serve to appeal even to the least nostalgic of railroad enthusiasts, if only they can be convinced to pick it up and look through it past its opening pages.
For these first few pages in, it is all billowing steam and dramatic light, and one might begin to fear that this will be yet one more album in the tradition of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, pleasant in a strawberry milkshake sort of way but not particularly memorable in its own right. It’s not that these dramatic images are bad: they are neither technically nor artistically flawed, but they are also of a genre that is not unfamiliar. But then, on page 22, it all changes in a characteristic Jensen fashion. The photo here, of two large steam locomotives and their long train of passenger cars silhoutted against a damp sky, is one of my favorites from this photographer, and I am disappointed at how small that the image runs in this book; nevertheless it breaks through the romantic bombast and begins a pattern of complex variety that marks this book as something special. Opposite this image is another fine stand-out, an image showing the roughshod nature of narrow gauge railroads, with a wandering pair of steel rails, barely any ties showing, splayed out through a ramshackle landscape, a tiny locomotive working hard to traverse the route. All darks and midtones, with barely a fleck of highlight anywhere, the image is teeth-gnashing and evocative.
The human aspect of these survivors is not neglected, and may in fact be one of the volume’s chief strengths. The careful inclusion of crewmen and other workers is a key aspect of this book’s DNA. From trackworkers hammering in spikes, to groundlings passing hand signals, to roundhouse monkeys wrestling with the oversize parts of these steel behemoths, people are a subtle but integral part to the visual story Jensen lays out for us. Sometimes they are ghostly figures, caught at work amidst the steam, while at other times, such as with a Durango and Silverton crew shown in a photo on page 57, they are cocky, defensive, weary, and proud, staring straight at the camera for a portrait the likes of which is as old as the relationship between the steam locomotive and cameras. Other similarly successful images include a portrait of a crewman for the ATSF 3751 on page 81, a Mount Rainier Scenic engineer on page 124, and mechanical workers from the Durango on 134 and 159. In some cases, these people wear the clothes of railroaders and shop workers for a century, bibs and long-sleeved work shirts and hard steel-toed boots, but in others they sport plastic hard hats and, in the case of the last of these images, modern wrap-around sunglasses. Often, photographers of contemporary steam seek to exclude such modern details, to try and recreate some sense of what they think the past was like, favoring costumes and playacting. Jensen here rejects this, and comes out with material that is intensely modern yet intensely authentic in ways that those seeking the Colonial Williamsburg of steam railroading always fail to achieve. These men look like the railroaders of the past because they are the railroaders of the past, and things like modern sunglasses don’t break the effect because such little trappings cannot contradict authenticity.
Failings? Few. One minor quibble is that the book is exclusively western material, but the book does not anywhere openly acknowledge this regional focus. This said, the book is subtitled as “the railroad photographs of Joel Jensen,” and Joel is a creature of the West, a photographer who is constantly roaming, constantly alone, and who sees the world through different eyes. And in the end, the artistic achievement of the photographer’s work makes complaints about his geographic biases seem trivial.
Overall production values are high, as one would expect in a book from a leading publisher such as Norton. That said, there are a few minor quibbles. The paper seems a tad thinner than I am used to expecting in such a book, so that when darker images are followed by a large white space on the next page, a very faint ghost can be read through the paper. It is, however, barely perceptible, and did not significantly detract from my enjoyment of the book. As for the photos themselves, reproduction is generally of high quality. There are times when I expected more shadow detail, but this is a common failing of black-and-white reproduction in printed matter, and overall Norton has done a great job with this. My only significant quibble with reproduction is with some of the larger images displayed across the gutter; a few, such as the image of an ATSF steam engine passing behind a graveyard on pages 70 and 71, appear rather soft, as if the prints had been scanned and then displayed larger than their original size.
This book at the end of the day is not at all about what it will be labelled as: it is not a photography book about tourist and heritage steam railroads. Instead, it is a book about undying tradition. No work has ever made contemporary steam more noble, more enviable, or harder work. The contradictions and anachronisms of these surviving steam locomotives and the crew that care for them are captured nakedly in Jensen’s photos, showing us something precious, something that is not at all playacting, but instead an unbroken thread to the relationship between man and steam that began on this continent in Antebellum times. This book will be of especial interest to those who appreciate steam locomotives, the interplay of railroads and geography, and the photography of railroads.