Some Trains In England And America

My father was an engineer and draughtsman before he became a teacher, and although he had worked on and was fascinated by aircraft, he also loved steam trains. He had a model railway collection in the loft and a cupboard on our landing at home, much of which had beenn smuggled in past my mother, who didn't think middle-aged men should have model railway sets.

The trouble was I never shared his passion as a boy, so the model railway set he made for me - a massive layout on a huge trestle-type table - was dismantled a few months after I received it one Christmas morning and relegated to the loft. In fact that Christmas morning was a bit of a disaster: the layout had been assembled downstairs [it was intended for and later moved to my bedroom] and the first thing I managed to do was trip over the transformer wire and cause it to land on the jack plug connectors, thus rendering it - and the layout - useless until the model shops opened a few days later.

Neither I nor the rest of my family shared Dad's passion for real steam trains either, bascially because given half-a-chance Dad would disappear under or into a locomotive for what seemed like hours on end. Whilst we as a family were happy to take a trip in a steam train along the seafront on holiday in Devon, or be suitably impressed as an engine screamed past showering us in soot and deafening us with its whistle, that was the end of the encounter for us. So much of my childhood holidays seemed to be spent chivvying and rushing my father past things we didn't want to be bothered with.

Of course, when my father died, I realised it was only the level of interest in engines that I didn't share with him. Without paternal pressure, I greatly enjoyed a visit to the train museum at York when I visited a friend there; I heard a steam whistle a few years back and cycled down to the station to see what had pulled in; I watched with great delight the unexpected sight of the Flying Scotsman flying over a bridge in Exeter only a few weeks ago. But that was it - a quick aesthetic snapshot, a bit of nostalgia mixed with a boyhood love of tin toys and big bulky powerful machines... I dunno. But that's as far as it goes. I don't collect or own model trains [well, I share my daughter's Brio engines I guess!] nor hang around stations - just so you don't get the wrong idea!

So I surprised myself the other day buying a couple of books by O. Winston Link [great name isn't it?], an American photographer renowned for taking night time photographs of steam trains. Mostly black & white, his photo shoots involved huge arrangements of lights and telephoned requests to the locomotive crews to slow down at the correct moment. Anyway, the photographs show surreal summer night scenes in America: kids playing, lovers' cars parked by sidings, hillbilly shops and shacks in the foreground as huge engines go by in swirls of steam and sparks, eerily silhouetted against the night sky. Steam, Steel & Stars: America's Last Steam Railroad is my favourite of the two, although the typeface design is ghastly. This is black and white throughout, whereas The Last Steam Railroad in America is partly in colour, the strangest colour I've ever seen: a kind of eerie blue-yellow tint hangs over everything, as the smoke and flash work their magic on the spectrum.

There are daytime shots, too, and a number of portraits of the people who worked on the line at the time [the 50s] the photos were taken. These portraits and documentary shots of stations and their surroundings are fascinating, but the real stars remain the trains. Link's photos are great photos, as photos, beyond their subject matter.

Which I'm not sure I can honestly say about Some Trains in America, a book of photos by Andrew Cross which Prestel sent me to review. It shares with the Link books a ghastly typographic design around the photos, and is a strange horizontal format; strange because the photos don't, in the main, use or fill the layout. The photos are endless, and to these eyes rather mundane, shots of diesel trains trundling across contemporary America. Occasionally the bright yellow & red locomotives are artistically snapped against a beautiful background or on an impressive bridge, but the bulk of the photos are simply too ordinary, working neither as 'photo' nor 'documentary'. It may be that I have no interest in diesel trains nor any fascination with the gravel yards or suburb-snear-railways of small town America; it may be that there is no nostalgia - implied or real [after all I don't remember steam trains in regular use in Britain] - to hold my attention.

But I think it's a bigger problem than this. How do we decide what makes a good photo? is something I struggle with anyway. I try to consider photography as I do painting, but all too often the photographer is simply obsessed with the content and if, as a viewer, you don't share their concerns, there is often little formal arrangement, pattern or tone, to hold your attention. A bit like our family's disinterest as Dad dived under a steam loco to look at the wheels and whatever, whilst we stood moaning in the sun. I only wish I'd been a bit more generous then and tried to share his enthusiasm. Because, now of course, I can't.

© Rupert Loydell 2002