Over the course of ten years, photographers Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton have put together a collection of 250 railroad photos from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The collection comes together in "Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs" out July 1. HuffPost Travel caught up with Mr. Brouws via email to ask about his love of train travel. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)
HuffPost Travel: How did you get interested in train travel?
Jeff Brouws: I became interested in trains at an early age. By extension traveling on them seemed exotic, giving one a unique perspective and vantage point in viewing the American landscape. Trains usually travel within a pre-defined corridor, oftentimes going places and through spaces otherwise inaccessible to the general public. While a lot of this travel takes place through pristine landscapes—like the deep confines of the Feather River Canyon or the high, mountainous passes of Donner Summit in California—I found I better liked the journey through what I call America's backyard. Here one gets to look at our country through an unvarnished, unmediated lens. I am particularly drawn to the nation's discarded landscapes, its de-industrialized zones—forsaken places suffering from the effects of poverty, job-loss and the other less glamorous aspects of globalization and corporate capitalism. These are the places trains mostly go through, at least in the Northeast, if you're traveling, say, between Albany to Chicago, or Washington DC to Philadelphia. Taking these journeys forced me to start thinking more broadly about geography, history, economics and sociology and how those aspects of human agency played out and transformed the landscape. This is what traveling by train can do for you. It shows you a different version of your world. A more truthful one. My eyes were opened.
This interest in trains led to an interest in photography, which prompted me to start taking photographs of all that I was seeing within the intriguing railroad landscapes I bore witness to. But then ten years ago, I also became interested in collecting photographs of railroads and railroading to supplement my life-long interest in trains and train travel...which is how Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs came into being. It's interesting to me that I decided to focus on discarded images, the detritus of photographic production. Maybe there's a parallel there with the discarded societal landscapes I find historically fascinating, too. I see it as all of a piece. Looking at the landscape through a train window (which itself is a frame onto the world) is not all that different than looking at history through the rectangular prism of a snapshot or a glossy 8 x 10.
HPT: You mention that you're an avid collector. Can you tell us more about your interest in train travel specifically?
JB: I have been an avid collector of many things all my life. As I say in the book's introduction, the act of collecting is a way "to bestow order on the universe, create meaning in the world, and temporarily control the arbitrary chaos we call life." I see a parallel with train travel. You ride along tracks that are part of a very orderly and rational system of transport. There are timetables which define and govern when the trains run and where they will be at any given moment. The tracks themselves, as part of a landscape, seem permanent and unyielding, fixed, reliable. I get some of the same feelings when looking at older photographs; there's a feeling of continuity when it comes to human existence. The visual culture evident in snapshots and other forms of the photographic record, like many we see in Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs —regardless of who the maker was—certify life and remind us that history is always happening and being created within each moment. And sometimes there was someone standing right there to document it as fact. And we're lucky they were.
HPT: Do you travel by train or are you more interested in the vintage aspect of it?
JB: I do travel by train when I can but it isn't about nostalgia or being particularly interested in vintage equipment that gets me aboard them, although all that can be beautiful and interesting in its own right.
First off, train travel is the best way to see the countryside, and when you're someone that loves to look at the world--as I do--what better way then being free to do so without the encumbrance of having to drive a car, watch for traffic, et cetera. And airline travel seems too fast for me and has lately become a real hassle. What I like about trains is the leisurely pace. Staying on the ground works for me as well. When I do think about the concept of vintage, I like to think—as we've hopefully captured in Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs—that history has a certain vintage and feel and that photographs are an excellent medium for conveying that. The photos in the book by the way don't register as nostalgia for me but instead come across as part of railroading's "historical contemporary." That is: they were made by someone documenting a real slice of reality, not recreation.
HPT: What are your favorite stations of yesteryear and today?
JB: Without a doubt there has been a major resurgence of preservation activity, and a renewed architectural appreciation for many of the great train stations still standing throughout the country. I can only imagine if Jackie Kennedy Onasis were alive today how proud she'd feel at having spearheaded Grand Central Station's resurrection, saving it from the wrecking ball of urban renewal. Its centennial this year is a wonder to behold and something to celebrate. Some of my favorite stations are LAUPT (Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal) and of course Grand Central, but historically, as one sees in Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs, it's interesting to note that stations and depots have long been favorite photographic subjects for photographers from time immemorial. One particular image in the book, made by Jesse Wolley in upstate New York in 1922, shows two boys on bicycles in front of a small town depot. A place that communities 100 years ago relied upon as their conduit to the outside world. Here people left or arrived, the mail and latest-edition newspapers were dropped off, and people set their watches by the daily passenger trains that smoked by. It was the center of small town life. When selecting photographs for the book I did try to include depot, station and train sheds images, but instead of the fabled and famous ones we know and love (which I didn't have photos of anyway), I chose instead pictures depicting the utilitarian, humble beauty of the everyday architecture most railroads adhered too when erecting their line side buildings. Like I said: I like the unvarnished and everyday. The photos in the book remind you that sometimes a picture of nothing special, or a picture of something banal, can be beautiful and of value, too. That's why people collect vernacular photography. These quiet understated pictures remind us that every element of life holds interest if we can see it.
HPT: Are you interested in other modes of transportation and how they've changed (for instance, aviation), as well?
JB: I'm very interested in the automobile and roads and highways...but we'll have to save that discussion for another day. Perhaps if we ever do a booked called Some Vernacular Highway Photographs we can take up that topic!
Take a look at some of our favorite photos from the book below.