, August 22, 2008
(view all comments by Alexander Craghead)
Sequels are always challenging projects to undertake. 2004 saw Jeff Brouws, erudite photography scholar and a photographer in his own right, bring us the definitive volume on the definitive railroad photographer, Richard Steinheimer. Brouws gave us a view of "Stein" through an academic's lens; the result was a book that redefined railroad photography. Now in 2008, Brouws has brought us a new book in the same format and with the same approach: The Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy. The question is, does it work this time?
The natural pace of sequels inevitably sets up comparisons between this book and the previous book on "Stein". This may or may not be fair to Shaughnessy, as it seems to beg the question of "is Shaughnessy as good as Stein"? The comparison may be further heightened by the broad similarity between the titles as well: one wonders if Brouws could have found a title that didn't mimic that of the Stein book.
A better question may be, is Shaughnessy's work worth the same level of intellectual exploration as Steinheimer? Brouws certainly thinks so. He gives us a rather long essay (22 pages) about Shaughnessy, revealing to us his origins and vignettes of his development as a railroad photographer. Brouws attempts to take this further, with numerous side trips into the broader world of railroad photography. At one point, for example, he debates whether photographers such as Robert Frank or Walker Evans influenced railroad photography, but then notes that Shaughnessy was not influenced by them. Brouws also takes an extended textual detour to describe the "Milwaukee School", a term he has coined to describe the prevailing 20th century railroad photography style as popularized by the iconic TRAINS Magazine. Yet even here the feeling is that of trying too hard: can one really lump photojournalists like Ted Benson and Richard Steinheimmer into the same stylistic camp as traditionalists such as Phil Hastings or gimmick-artists like O. Winston Link? The result is an introduction that feels overly long and unfocused, as if Brouws wanted to write a piece on the development of railroad photography itself, rather than a coherent narrative about Shaughnessy.
Following the introduction comes the bulk of the book, the photographs themselves. Most of the photographs are printed one to a page with white margins, and in fact only one image is printed full bleed. Unlike Brouws' previous work on Steinheimer, all the plates are displayed against a white page. Few images are shown double truck, with a significant handful being presented across the gutter of the book and partway onto a second, mostly white page. Overall, most of the images laying across the gutter survive the experience.
The images that Brouws has selected greatly support portions of his "Milwaukee School" thesis from the introduction, being on average more conventional in nature and focusing more on documenting things and places over experiences. It is as if Brouws is holding up Shaugnessy as a pinnacle example of what was the mainstream railroad photography style of the 20th century. The book is also distinctively of its region: has Shaughnessy's style absorbed what it means to be in New England and upstate New York, or do those of us who call ourselves railroad photographers simply associate the region so much with his photos that the two are no longer separable?
The most memorable photographs in The Call of Trains are the images containing the people who lived with and made the railroads. An elderly station agent, his head as "old and weary" as his employer, the New York, Ontario and Western. A Nickel Plate Road man, about to hoop up orders to an oncoming train. A Boston and Maine laborer washing the windows of a classic streamlined diesel locomotive in the mid-fifties. Best of all of these, perhaps, is Plate 16, an image taken in 1961 in Watervliet, New York. It is dark, and a switchman of the Delware and Hudson Railroad, electric lantern in one hand, is throwing a switch in a yard, his body lit up presumably by the headlights of his train. It is crisp, and one can almost feel the chill misty air; it is a scene of everyday railroading that is as real today as it was when it was shot. Interestingly, Lucius Beebe was so attracted to the image that he used it on a book about the SP, intentionally misidentifying the railroad and location of the shot.
Interspersed with these human-centered photos are bucolic panoramas, gritty scenes of fading New England industry, and dramatic night scenes. Strangely, though, I find that one of the least typical images of the collection is the finest, Plate 64. The photograph is uncharacteristically stark for a Shaughnessy piece, with a plain sky, minimal scenery, and an empty foreground. We look straight on the side of a train, a single diesel locomotive hauling a single car down the track in late 1980s rural New York state. Little traffic, no people visible, no industry or life; if plate 16 had a timeless quality to it, plate 64 was one of the few images I have ever seen to have captured so well how much the railroad world had changed.
Following the plates, we are treated to a two page essay by the photographer himself. Shaughnessy recounts for us a series of memories, including an intriguing one of assembling a story on a day in a life of a hostler on the D&H in 1957 that strangely was never published, and an amusing anecdote about a railfan tradition, fun with rental cars. The stories are charming, and if any fault could be had with them, it's that there aren't enough of them. After Shaughnessy's too-brief afterward comes a series of extended captions for each of the plates in the book, and the final plate, plate 143.
Overall, the book that Brouws gives us is a valuable insight into a photographer who arguably represents the best of mainstream railroad photography from the last century. Although The Call of Trains could be faulted for over-ambition, the quality of both the content and the reproduction makes the book a standout. Anyone who is interested in the progress of railroad photography or who has an interest in the railroads of the New England region would be well served to purchase this book.