JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung in the two room divided gallery space. The show combines work from 5 contemporary photographers with railroad maps, hand colored wood engravings, vintage photo postcards (from the collection of Luc Sante) and other ephemera. The exhibit was curated by Brian Sholis. (Installation shots at right.)
The following photographers have been included, with information on the number of works on view and image details for reference:
- Jeff Brouws: 3 archival pigment prints, each 37×44, from 2010 and 2011
- Justine Kurland: 3 c-prints, each 15×30 or 40×50 (or reverse), from 2007, 2008 and 2012
- Mark Ruwedel: 19 gelatin silver prints, each 8×10, from 1995-2005
- Victoria Sambunaris: 2 chromogenic print, each 39×55, from 2007 and 2010
- James Welling: 3 toned gelatin silver prints, each 18×22 (or reverse, from 1990 and 1991
Comments/Context: When we think about history in an academic, tell us the truth about the past sense, the one genre of photography that tends not to be considered particularly relevant is fine art photography. Without a second thought, we rely upon photojournalism and documentary photographs of various kinds to provide evidence for our backward looking interpretation of historical events, but we normally don’t include photographs with art as a first purpose in this analysis. Perhaps we assume they are too subjective or slanted to be instructive. This collective bias is what makes The Permanent Way such an unexpected show – it’s unabashedly a history lesson, and yet, the reasoned argument put forth is supported by fine art photographs as primary source material.
With the passage of the Pacific Railway Act 150 years ago this year, the US government unleashed what would become one of the most ambitious transformations of the American landscape ever undertaken. Land grants and rights of way enabled massive, industrial scale earthworks – bridge building, canyon cutting, rock blasting, path clearing, and track laying with a unprecedented scope. It was a fifty year whirlwind of engineered nation building, with commercial friendly rail lines spreading like blood vessels to every corner of the uninhabited West. Fast forward a century, and these railways are now permanently embedded in our landscapes, reshaping the way our towns and cities evolved, how our economy grew and developed, and how we see the land and its natural marvels. Along the way, the entire genre of American landscape photography was similarly remade.
Curator Brian Sholis has smartly mixed 19th century maps, photo post cards, and other vernacular material from the period with recent photographs made by five contemporary artists, each photographer employing a different approach to documenting the trains and railway infrastructure. None of these artists is a “train photographer” in the way that we might label O. Winston Link as such an artist; instead, the assembled group takes a broader view of the impact the trains have had (and continue to have) on the land and the communities that have grown up near the tracks. Victoria Sambunaris uses elevated views of bending arcs of freight cars and straight arrow tracks to tell complex, layered stories about the borderlands between the US and Mexico and the landscape of the Utah desert. Justine Kurland is perhaps more interested in the hobo subculture that has developed around the train system, and her images of the slow S curve of tracks that follow a river through the California mountain wilderness or the broad flat plains dominated by sky are quiet and lonely, measured by the contrast in scale between the rootless riders and the immensity of the land. Both Mark Ruwedel and Jeff Brouws examine the train system as a pattern of ruins; Ruwedel sees the formal Becher-style repetition in sharp V shaped cuts through rock and the dark holes of abandoned tunnels, while Brouws follows the empty railbeds as the thin paths vanish into the encroaching forest. And James Welling makes low angle black and white “portraits” of engines, evoking feelings that are alternately heroic and grimy.
Together, these photographs provide a varied, surprisingly unsentimental picture of the impact of the railroads on the American landscape. It’s an effective proof that the downstream effects of the decisions made some 150 years ago still reverberate in increasingly complicated and nuanced ways, even when the trains have long since ceased to run in many cases. Most importantly, I think this show is a fabulous reminder that fine art photography can be a vital resource in helping to interpret the complexities of our collective past; we ought to thoughtfully mix history and art more often.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are not for sale. The contemporary photographers included in the exhibit are represented by the following New York galleries: