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.



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