Art on the Tracks : Nostalgic for the Future

As we are preparing to exhibit our student’s pictures created during the Art on the Tracks workshop, I’m thinking back on our three sessions and our final trip to Poughkeepsie, New York, and looking forward to the exhibition.

Establishing Art on the Tracks in conjunction with the exhibition Railroad Landscapes, Janina McCormack and I sought to bring together a group of young photographers to explore what social geographer John Stilgoe calls the Metropolitan Corridor, or as I have adapted it visually, the Railroad Landscape.  Our goals are twofold: photographic education and an exhibition of the student’s work created during the workshop.  We brought together a group of ten teenage photographers from a variety of backgrounds.  Some are enrolled in photography programs in their respective schools, others enjoy railroad photography as a hobby and a few others are new to photography.   

Over 400 pictures were taken over three sessions.  In emphasizing the divergent and unique perspectives of each of our student’s work, the exhibition’s aim is to display a composite portrait of the locations we visited.

Note: Thanks to photographer Jeff Brouws for his mentorship in introducing me to John Stilgoe. His writing helped reinforce the meaning in my own work.  I must also thank the Center for Railroad Photography & Art for their support.

Our final trip to Poughkeepsie was crafted to give the students a perspective of the railroad environment outside of New York City, since our prior two workshops were both within city limits: the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the abandoned Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch.

Much of my work depicts the railroad in context, and many of the views include architecture — tangentially I often feel that railroad tracks architectural in their own right.

At the Brooklyn Army Terminal the students experienced the visuals of rail in the context of constructed space.  The binary quality of images below, taken by our student Isabella Reyes, stood out to me.

Much of the army terminal has been re-purposed for commercial or artist’s studios.  The idea that many of these spaces surrounding the railroad continue to evolve, whether or not the actual tracks are in use, has resonated with me over the years.

During our penultimate workshop day we explored a section of the Metropolitan Corridor that has not been re-purposed like our prior location, except that it has been reclaimed by nature.  This section of rail once connected the Long Island Railroad’s mainline to the Rockaway Beach section of New York and has been inactive for over forty years.  The thick cover of foliage contrasted with the steel and concrete of the army terminal.

In traveling by rail to Poughkeepsie during our final workshop, the program gelled visually and topically: nature, railroad, architecture, and industrial infrastructure.  The town of Poughkeepsie, about a two hour trip from New York City by train, sits on the eastern shore of the Hudson River.  Its most conspicuous landmark is a former railroad bridge that spans both sides of the river.  Much like our first location, the bridge has been re-purposed in the last few years and has been renovated to carry pedestrian traffic.   The views from the bridge include two active rail lines: the Hudson Line on the eastern shore and the Riverline on the west shore, the latter being exclusively for freight trains.

Poughkeepsie concluded the point that the railroad is still an omnipresent factor in the American landscape.  Despite not being the object of folk mythology like yesteryear, the American railroad today is a rich source of visual material to describe our shared history.

Tom Grayson, Walkway over the Hudson

Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming exhibition of the student’s work at the New York Transit Museum.


Theme, Variations, and Sequencing

      As much as photography has influenced me, so too has literature, and music.

     I was introduced to Brahms at the age of 18 during a Music 101 class.  His Variations on a Theme by Haydn took me somewhere I had never gone musically, emotionally, intellectually.  Musical structure appealed to me.  A Theme and Variations is a medium length piece consisting of several sections.  At the beginning, the composer introduces the Theme, what follows are numerous re-iterations of this theme (usually a recognizable melody) in various soundscapes and development.

      A contrast to Theme and Variations might be Maurice Ravel’s Bolero which consists of a theme without development, only a gradual increase in pitch over the work’s average 16 minute running time.

     The nomenclature surrounding these compositions lasting for thirty minutes or more seemed to create a cartography of sound.   Symphonies in particular followed the idea of exposition, development, repetition, cadenza, coda and a myriad of other diminutive structural elements.  I was attracted to the names of these sections, as they clarified the function of the musical elements within the larger work.

     What followed Brahms were revolutions in sound by such composers as Mahler, who shunned the traditional four movement Symphony and added sections as he saw fit.

     Now begs the question, can these structural ideas of music be adapted to photography?

 Over a half century ago Minor White wrote of sequence:

 “With single images I am basically an observer, passive to what is before me, no matter how perceptive or how fast my emotions boil. In putting images together I become active, and the excitement is of another order—synthesis overshadows analysis.”

Minor White

     A sequence of pictures is no more canonized than in Robert Frank’s The American’s.   His street views from across the United States during the 1950s served to be a portrait of the country at its most crucial crossroad since the end of the Civil War.  Frank’s views of vibrant city life and small town America included such subtexts as segregation, politics, and life on the road.  As I said in an earlier post about O. Winston Link, America’s social landscape changed in the 1950s as small towns dwindled and suburbs overshadowed the city center as a hub of activity.

      If we look at the musical terms mentioned previous, such as repetition and recapitulation, we can draw comparisons with work such as Frank’s.  Much like a reoccurring a melody, in The Americans we see certain themes recur often — such as flags, roadways, and signage.  Flags seem most prominent as they often unfold new sections within the book.

     Delving into contrasting art forms and discovering their functions may help us learn to reinforce meaning in our own work.

Hamlet, the Photographer

During a screening of the National Theater’s latest production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch at Symphony Space on Sunday, I was reminded of a few lines where Hamlet advises his actors, prior to the ‘play within a play…’

He begins with “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” as the speech progresses, Hamlet the Life Coach suggests…

…you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Seemingly directed towards actors playing a part, these lines are universal.  In so short a text, Shakespeare cautions us to beware our own eagerness of showing and not telling.  He is putting us in control of presenting our work, be it poetry, acting, photography, and betting that we will see our audience as a discerning group.  They will most certainly be aware of our attempts at deception through over-editing or cliches.  In other words, play to the finest.

Photography’s ability to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ runs a wide gamut.  To begin with I will use an obvious, and some might say vulgar, example (apologies in advance). The subject of HDR photography came up with a group of students during my Art on the Tracks workshop with Janina McCormack.

In HDR Imagery we see an attempt to maximize detail throughout the tonal range of a picture — and while I will leave the ‘Issue of Taste’ to another post — these images often sacrifice the very things they aim to maximize, impact through contrast.  What is often created is an image that is essentially all mid-tones.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if we are looking at scene encompassing deep shadowed areas and bright highlights, employing techniques such as this might make things look a bit… o’erdone?

In contrast, I recall standing before a print by Amy Lamb in a private collection in New York City.  Here are pictures that clearly define their subjects. As she says:

“I noticed that the forms I observed in flowers were found throughout the universe in spiral galaxies, branching rivers, layered rock formations, beautifully symmetrical organisms, and more.”

The beauty is in the order with which these objects fall.  Lamb doesn’t have to overstate her subjects for her photographs to have impact, but she understands how to accent their natural elements so that one may see the thing as clearly as possible.  Within the studied restraint of her work, lies power.

… the mirror up to nature.

Chattanooga Parking Lot

Saturday, October 15, 2015

I’m waiting for the sky to darken to achieve a balance of light between subject and sky.  I’ve practiced this a thousand times before: set up the large format camera, and wait, wait, wait.  I took up a habit of keeping a written record of my experiences during these times, when observations are not quite ready to be suspended…

It’s mid-October, but the breeze, more like wind, and the milky grey sky feel as if it’s late November.

Second day out of New York City and my mind has been all over the place.  I know what I came here for but my trip has no purpose yet.

Up here on a parking lot roof in Chattanooga–the Choo Choo right next door, the sign jutting up into the sky, quite assertively.  I am feeling pangs of isolation.  The faint numbness of uncertainty — I’m not sure what this trip holds yet… it is 5:52 and the day is closing.  I have a habit of questioning my purpose on the first couple days of heading out to photograph.  I get so tired sometimes of having to pass through this stage of disinterest, to get into the feeling of working, but wasn’t it Diane Arbus who said that the “Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination…”? 

I can relate to that.  Whether one is working in the studio or landscape,  it is the process of working that becomes the driving force.  Steaming through those hours or days of frustration in order to achieve a decent picture, or a line of text.

Assertive choo-choo, indeed.

Choo-Choo, Chattanooga, Tennessee