The Luminous Landscape Grant
Railroad Landscapes: West Coast to Texas
John Sanderson - New York, NY, USA
Traveling across the United States is an exercise in the predictable. Much of the highway landscape, aside from secondary roads bypassed by most long-distance travelers, is a recurring sequence of franchised businesses. This body of photographs examines the overlooked track-side environment of America's railroads. From the urban to the rural, I set out to examine how the tracks exist as a narrative force within the frame while also looking to places describing our collective history.
The aim of this Luminous Landscape Grant application is to help fund travel and film costs in the competition of my project outlined below. Additional funds will be used toward the creation of a two part book, one featuring 4x10" panoramic and the other 8x10" format images.
From the Romanticism of George Inness’ “Lackawanna Valley” through the smoke-belching industrial criticism of Alfred Stieglitz’ pictorialist photograph “The Hand of Man”, the railroad’s trains, workers, sounds, and visual power have influenced artists since the early 19th century. Despite the interpretative power of railroad paintings, it is photography’s ability to act as a document, as well as an expressive object, which interests me. The railroad landscape work of William H. Rau and Carleton Watkins are often devoid of the visual momentum a train carries across a picture and instead reflects on the railroad’s value, independent of its intended use.
Approaching the landscape from this perspective and like earlier photographers I use large format cameras and film. This allows the work to hold exceptional detail and sense of scale when displayed as a print, which is my intended medium. My goal is to engage the viewer through the print medium, by which they will engaged with the subjects and themes presented.
As seen on my website or portfolio, the railroad landscape series is in two parts. One uses a rectangular 4:3 aspect ratio and the other a longer panoramic format. Hung side-by-side in an exhibition the images hold a formal unity, creating an unfurled tapestry of environments which encompass the American railroad. The panoramic format serves several purposes. One is to encourage a visual movement across the prints. This decision was partly due to the way the eye naturally gravitates to the distance from a moving train. The panorama allows use of the tracks as a gestural object, flowing across the scene and demarcating the landscape.
The industrial sublime during the early part of the 20th century among American painters, the social documentary photographs of Walker Evans and the contemporary residual (read, empty of people) landscapes of Edward Burtynsky, have all compelled me in creating beauty out of industry. In my work I see the railroad line as an architectural object. The tracks’ presence underscores each picture, providing visual balance and contrast or symmetry with the environment. Like architecture -- and much unlike the flatness of a roadway -- light and shadow transform their visual appearance. Content follows form and I strive for an archaeological duality in my images. The first is a document of place and time. The subjects which interests me are vernacular rather than grandiose -- places holding a passing and often overlooked familiarity. The second is phenomenological, a studied arrangement of elements within a picture in order to reveal their nascent expressive qualities. I set out to intersect with the formal qualities of the railroad, thereby capturing some of what has influenced American artists since its inception.
The opportunity to develop a specific body of work over an extended time span in a particular region of the U.S. is a unique opportunity, especially for a photographer. I foresee an extended period of travel supported by a Luminous Landscape Grant to complete my Railroad Landscapes project as intended. An intimate connection with the landscape and subject matter is a critical aspect in creating photographs and the grant will undoubtedly provide me with this freedom.
During 2016 I photographed the northern Mountain States of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Accomplished through the support of an artist residency at Brush Creek Ranch, Wyoming and a Kickstarter campaign, this allowed me to add a new region of the United States to my portfolio.
In a recent letter of recommendation, photographer, writer, and social geographer Jeff Brouws wrote:
"Like the text in John Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor— which analyzes and deconstructs the railroad landscape—Sanderson’s photographic investigation attempts something similar: to uncover the meaning and disclose the relationships between the railroad landscape and every variety of American environment it traverses: the urban, the rural, the industrial, the suburban, and the natural. He knows that the territory adjacent to the nation’s rail lines is a palimpsest of, and for, our country’s political, social and economic history and ambitions."
Much remains to be explored of the American railway's relation to its surroundings in other sections of the country. My time during the Luminous Landscape Grant will be a continued exploration of the American Railroad Landscape -- both natural and constructed -- from the West Coast to the southern Mountain States and the Southwest.