I’ve long had an interest in how a master photographer who is not necessarily a railfan might approach photographing railroad operations. What would he or she see that the typical railfan overlooks or doesn’t think about?
Hence, I was drawn to an article at the website Slate.com about San Francisco photographer McNair Evans and his exhibit In Search of Great Men, which is on display at San Francisco City Hall through Nov. 18.
Evans spent four years riding Amtrak for two weeks at a time twice a year. The exhibit highlights what he saw and captured during those trips, a view of Amtrak travel through the camera of an artisan photographer.
If you lack the time or money – or both – to travel to the West Coast you can sample the exhibit by clicking on the link below.
I haven’t seen the complete exhibit, only the sample available at Slate.com. It was enough to intrigue me.
Evans did not focus on what a typical railfan photographer might emphasize. He was more interested in the people riding the train and their stories of why they were traveling.
One theme he developed was how people appear on a long-distance train after having ridden in a coach seat all night.
“The long-haulers interest me the most because at that point, why aren’t you flying?” Evans told the San Francisco Chronicle.
They weren’t flying because the train was more economical, they enjoyed train travel or they had an aversion to flying.
Evans, 36, is not without a railroad background.
A biographical sketch posted at sfac galleries.com said that the North Carolina native spent summers as a teenager on a track gang for a short-line railroad.
A passenger car that his grandfather once owned is on display in North Carolina.
But it was a summer 2011 trip from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia, that sparked his interest in what became his “great men” project.
“I felt in love at the time, so the romance of this short ride really swept me away,” Evans told Slate.com. “We passed the backs of manufacturing facilities, Little League Baseball games, and tobacco fields where individuals worked with traditional hoes and rakes. I was drawn to the passengers on that route that not surprisingly mirrored the surroundings. They were very receptive to my camera.”
Between 2012 and 2014 Evans rode Amtrak for two weeks at a time and would spend 16 to 18 hours a day making photographs. As a college student Evans studied anthropology and in a sense his train trips were anthropological expeditions.
Aboard the train he looked for passengers who caught his attention through such traits as the color of their clothing, the meal they were eating or the way they laughed.
He asked them to write out a narrative explaining something about their lives and why they were aboard the train.
“It provides a safe place for them to share their story and a rich source for me to explore each person’s emotional nuances through his writing,” Evans said. “The idea of a single perspective project felt self-indulgent, distant, and one-dimensional.”
Evans said he rides the train because of the human interactions it provides. “I’m there because I love people, observing them, learning from them, and finding common ground between our lives. For a romantic humanist like me, it’s a wonderful way to travel,” he said.
Not all of Evans’s photographs are of people. He also made images of what could be seen from the train, including such things as the underside of a highway bridge.
A description of the “Great Men” exhibit at sfac galleries.com described it as a combination of “compelling portrait and landscape photography alongside photo-documentation of pages from first-person, passenger-written journals, offering the viewer a poignant and empathetic view of the diverse cross-section of travelers he encountered . . .”
Among those whose stories he tells are an Amish family traveling to Tijuana for medical treatment, a single mother commuting to the North Dakota oil fields, and a teenage son hoping to reunite with his father.
“At a time when such travel may soon be only a memory, this show explores that search for something just out of reach and a bit intangible,” Evans said. “It is about the desire for change and the possibility of hope fulfilled.”
I found myself admiring how Evans was able to get the people he met aboard the train to cooperate with him.
Most people do not embark on a journey expecting to be photographed or approached by a stranger asking them to tell their life story.
I’ve had interesting conversations with people aboard Amtrak, but more often than not those occurred during meals in the dining car. Many – although not all – of those you dine with aboard a train want to socialize.
I also know that many people are self-conscious about being photographed and suspicious of your motives for wanting to photograph them.
When traveling aboard a train, I try to make images of people who aren’t looking at me or who seem unaware of my presence.
Evans used that tactic, too, but at other times he created portraits of willing subjects.
Doing that takes a certain amount of people skills and even courage that many railfan photographers – myself included – don’t have.
You have to have a photojournalist mindset in order to board a train and start firing away at your fellow passengers with a camera. Having an extroverted personality also helps.
There is an art to approaching people and getting them to agree to be photographed. Evans probably has plenty of stories to tell about people who were cool if not hostile to his work.
He probably reached a certain comfort level with people before pulling out his camera. I’d bet he has developed a feel for what type of person is amenable to being portrayed in a photograph.
It is not just people that Evans photographed during his journeys. He didn’t overlook details that we take for granted because we’ve seen them a thousand times.
One of Evans’ images shows a menu for the Capitol Limited tucked between a wall and the back of a booth as late day light streams through a window.
Such detail helps to tell a larger story by showing a nuance about the experience you are seeking to capture.
Another lesson is to view that experience through the perspective of someone unfamiliar with it.
Most Americans have never ridden Amtrak, let along taken a cross-country trip by rail. To them, Amtrak is just another way to travel yet they might even think of it as romantic because that is how train travel long has been portrayed. What would a person unfamiliar with Amtrak travel or any other experience focus on if seeing or experiencing it for the first time?
And then there are the people at the center of the experience. They do not have to be doing extraordinary endeavors. Some of Evans’s most interesting images portray ordinary people doing an ordinary thing. As much as train travel has been romanticized, it is, for most travelers, an ordinary experience.
But it wasn’t just travelers who Evans captured. One image shows a young man watching the Southwest Chief pass a McDonald’s restaurant in Trinidad, Colorado.
Perhaps that man views the train as a summons to travel to some faraway place for the excitement of discovery of something new, as a means to escape something that is haunting him, or something that is attractive because it is moving.
Whatever the reason why they watch trains go by, people alongside the tracks are a part of the railroad experience.
Evans’ work shows what you can accomplish if you are willing to spend the time to study something in depth and put in extensive work documenting it.
It also shows the value of theme development, which often results from familiarity with your subject matter. Theme development, after all, is the difference between a story and a mere collection of photographs.