Scott Conarroe, The Great Eastern

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by The Velvet Cell (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 23×17 cm, 80 pages, with 32 color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist, and a set of thumbnails with titles and locations. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The classic form of the train photograph, at least from the early days of the medium, captures a hulking black steam engine crossing a wide open plain, or perhaps sitting at the station, spewing billows of dark smoke into the sky and pulling a seemingly endless like of cars that arc into the distance. Embedded in such pictures, especially those made in 19th century America, was a mix of historical, economic, and even emotional optimism – the forward push of industrialization, the pride in human achievement, and the conquering and settling of the vast open spaces of the Midwest and West, all wrapped into one machine age beast. Trains were a potent physical symbol of modern progress, and photographers and ordinary citizens alike saw them with the heady air of romance.

Some of these same sentiments, albeit in a 21st century form, swirl around China’s recent Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Dubbed the “new Silk Road,” the three-decade long project will ultimately build a new high speed rail network across the vastness of China and outward to neighboring regions. Designed as an overlay to and expansion of the existing railway system, the massive development effort will essentially double the country’s interior shipping capacity (by shifting passengers to the new fast network, thereby freeing up space on the existing freight lines.) It also promises to make more robust connections between the agricultural interior and the modern coastal megacities, hopefully bringing increased investment to the rural areas and stemming the tide of internal migration away from the countryside. With a growing middle class and increasing pressure to keep the economic growth engine humming, it is an understatement to say that the Belt Road Initiative – and all it hopes to enable – is a massively important project for contemporary China.

The Canadian photographer Scott Conarroe has spent the past several years photographically documenting the progress of the BRI. Conarroe is no stranger to train photography, having previously made pictures along the rails and coastlines in North America, but the sheer scale of the Chinese initiative posed a range of new aesthetic and logistical challenges. Unlike the American Transcontinental Railway system (built in the 1860s), which was largely laid across open terrain, the BRI is often being constructed right alongside existing track lines, cutting though dense cities and interfering with large populations. So instead of images of tracks slicing through grasslands that stretch to the horizon, Connaroe’s pictures consistently show us more hemmed in and layered views, where the rails snake through urban areas, or jump into the sky on elevated tracks to traverse places too complex to interrupt with new construction. And while we do see a rail car here and there passing between the buildings, Conarroe’s pictures are mostly about the tracks (and bridges, tunnels, and other improbable constructions that are taking shape) rather than the trains that run on them.

The Great Eastern gathers together landscape images that crisscross China, from the coastal provinces in the East and Southeast, to inland provinces in the center of the country, and still further out to the Northwest and Southwest as well as Inner Mongolia – Conarroe clearly put some significant miles into this grand tour. In each spot, he must have spent days scouting workable locations to make images of the local train infrastructure, as nearly all of his photographs are taken from elevated vantage points that see the tracks, overpasses, bridges, stations, and other unfinished works from middle distance – not up close or on foot, and not aerial or far away, but in a place where the visible space divides into layered sections.

This scale decision is a critical one, as it provides the touch point for the overall aesthetic mood. When Nadav Kander made images of the changes taking place along the Yangtze River, he keyed in on the immensity of some of the bridge and dam constructions, creating visual drama by placing tiny people at the foot of astonishingly monumental structures. Conarroe takes a much more measured and understated approach, opting for frames that tell stories of integration and interleaving, where surrounding context is the important variable, however messy, unruly, or even unlikely it might be. In an unexpected way, flipping through the pages of The Great Eastern recalls the grade school memorization of prepositions, starting with a and continuing through the alphabet: above, across, against, along, alongside, among, around, at, and so on; each image seems to represent a close spatial relationship, where the new train tracks and railway infrastructure nestle into and pass through existing (or re-forming) ways of life.

Many of Conarroe’s compositions are loosely striped, with distinct regions of the foreground, the midground, and the background layered on top of one another. The back is typically reserved for a reminder of the sweep of the land – misty mountains, craggy hills, river gorges, and smogged expanses of endless city. The midground is where Conarroe places the track infrastructure, but the complexity of that siting also inevitably includes other built structures and context. Elevated tracks on concrete pilings often provide linear movement through the frame, the tracks racing across our view or angling back into the distance. The same can be said for slightly closer in views of stations and track interchanges, where the textures of the tracks create distinct horizontal gestures; these are then balanced by other images with repeated verticals, mostly unfinished pilings, in-process bridge parts, or smokestacks, that march across the open space or reach into the hazy sky with rhythmic predictability. In several cases, what Conarroe is showing us is less the tracks themselves, and more the tight apartment blocks, worker housing, and other brick structures (many still uninhabited) that linger underneath the overpasses or alongside the tracks in less desirable locations.

Conarroe uses the foreground to tell small stories, often highlighting the contradictions taking place as modernity rubs shoulders with tradition. He notices the orange spark of a garbage fire, the yellow sheaves of grain being laid to dry by two women, the red umbrellas of a small station kiosk, a neat garden set under an overpass with a bucket positioned to catch drips, a logging effort coming out of the greenery and toward the river, and the first graffiti drawings on a newly set concrete pillar. These details humanize the intrusion of the high speed rail, merging old and new.

The design of The Great Eastern is straightforward and functional. All of Conarroe’s photographs are horizontally-oriented, so the images generally reach from the right across the spread to the left (with a couple of exceptions.) The cover includes a map of Chinese railway system, providing a visual diagram that supports the images inside. The photobook’s relatively modest size makes it easy to hold, and the photographs feel large when seen in such an intimate manner.

The Great Eastern succeeds because Conarroe takes an intriguing but unwieldy subject (the Belt Road Initiative) and makes it his own. Our curiosity about what is taking place in China creates the opportunity for a visual conversation, and Conarroe organizes that visual exchange to highlight the national reinvention and rebalancing that is occurring. While as a project the BRI is anything but humble, Conarroe’s photographs of different facets of the effort are self-effacing, and that serenity allows us to look more closely and the intricacies he has documented. Instead of over-simplifying the story, he has embraced its complexity, making pictures that revel in multi-layered coexistence.

Collector’s POV: Scott Conarroe is represented by Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto (here). Connaroe’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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