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Railfan Extra Board Special - November 2010

Central Vermont Railway locomotive number 707, White River Junction, VT, 1957

Central Vermont Railway locomotive number 707, White River Junction, VT, 1957. The Center for Railroad Photography and Art is sponsoring an exhibition of Plowden photographs and reception at the California State Railroad Museum in honor of the debut of his new book, "Requiem for Steam."
Photo copyright David Plowden from Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden, W. W. Norton, 2010.

David Plowden's Imprint on Railroad Photography

By Alexander Craghead/Photos by David Plowden

Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Fireman, 1961
Virginia Blue Ridge Railroad, Fireman, 1961. Photo copyright David Plowden from Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden, W. W. Norton, 2010.

David Plowden is one of the most important American photographers to make images of the nation’s railroads. His fascination with railroads, and especially steam locomotives, was the root of his life’s work as a photographer. His serious photography education started with an apprenticeship to O. Winston Link in 1958, and then he began studying with Minor White in the fall of 1959. Plowden left White after only six months, the imminent end of steam on the Canadian Pacific calling more strongly than White’s workshop. Frustrated by his new protégé’s decision, but understanding the importance of steam locomotives to Plowden, White said, "Go do your damned engines and get them out of your system or you’ll never do anything again."

Plowden did, and he went onto create a vast body of work documenting the railroad environment. He is best known to railroad enthusiasts and railfans for his images of steam locomotives, yet he has approached nearly every facet of railroading. With the end of steam, Plowden sought other subjects in the changing American landscape, establishing himself as a successful and notable photographer, with over 20 books and numerous grants, awards, and exhibitions.

Strangely enough as a young photographer, when I first saw Plowden's work, I could not fully grasp the significance of his railroad photographs. Fixating solely on pictures of locomotives (a comparatively small part of his railroad work, I later learned), I mistakenly dismissed Plowden as just one of many mid-century railroad photographers who made pictures of steam locomotives charging down the mainline.

Railfan Extra Board

I had missed the point. Plowden is not a railroad photographer, but a photographer who happens to love steam locomotives and railroads. His railroad work merely started with the engines; he portrayed the entire environment surrounding them, from the shops and yards to the railroad men to the smallest details of the era. With the "eye of a poet" (as Minor White once told him) and the care of a craftsman, Plowden documented the railroad scene as it existed at the end of the age of steam. As my own photography matured, and my thinking about the documenting of the railroad scene changed, I began to see in Plowden’s work the details that we can so easily overlook in the rush of seeing the train. With this change in attitude, I now consider Plowden’s images to be among the most meaningful and inspiring railroad photography I have ever seen.

Even though Plowden made most of his railroad photographs near the beginning of his career, they still contain many hallmarks of his work: a great care of framing, deliberate composition, a delicate sense of light and shadow. Individually these are small elements, and their power is ethereal, but when combined, they create images that transport the viewer to another time and place. More than any other photographer I know, Plowden’s images carry a sense of immediacy. Years fall away. Where in the works of others I might see a picture of another time, I see a Plowden photograph as if it was made now, just now, not the other day or year or decade or more. Now.

There is a cruelty to this notion of timelessness, though, for Plowden has often described himself as "one step ahead of the wrecking ball." Much of the environment that Plowden has captured in his photographs is long gone from our world. His photographs of the railroad environment, including (and perhaps most especially) the steam locomotive, evoke a great sense of loss. Indeed, his mid-century hunt for the disappearing steam locomotive set the tone for much of his later career, as he worked to document other disappearing aspects of the American landscape.

David Plowden's Imprint on Railroad Photography
Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad depot, Princeton, Indiana, 1966.
Photo copyright David Plowden from Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden, W. W. Norton, 2010.

More than anything else, it is perhaps this sense of loss that lends Plowden’s work resonance and relevance today. In the dawning years of a new century, the railroad scene is again altering drastically. Fewer and fewer employees are needed for greater and greater tonnage, completely de-peopling an industry that was once one of the nation’s largest employers. Trains are bigger, longer, and heavier, but also increasingly look the same. As industry consolidates into fewer and larger facilities, the branchline networks that once spread across the countryside recede ever so slowly yet ever so surely. As a photographer of loss and change, Plowden’s railroad photographs are thus an important touchstone in a theme that impacts every photographer of railroads, no matter their motivation.

The next time you have the opportunity to look at Plowden’s railroad photographs, please stop for a moment and take a long look. And when the image starts to pull you in, and the line between the present and the past begins to blur, remember to silently thank Minor White for the advice he gave Plowden over a half century ago.

Photographs from David Plowden's new book Requiem for Steam are on display from October 1 through January 6 at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. In addition, the Center for Railroad Photography and Art will sponsor a lecture and reception with the photographer at CSRM on November 4.

 
 

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