I've wanted to write about Stacey Evans' evocative and quietly moving new series Trainscapes ever since I saw some of the photos in a gallery last fall. It's a meditation on the American scene from the point-of-view of a railroad passenger -- landscapes and cityscapes photographed through the window of a moving train. Trainscapes is very much work-in-progress, but what Evans has produced so far is already attracting considerable attention. There have been shows in Richmond, Virginia, and Piedmont Virginia Community College, in Charlottesville. Now, Trainscapes is on view at the Baker Gallery, in the Walker Fine Arts Center, at Woodberry Forest School, as part of the two-woman show En Route. (Fine art photographer Pam Pecchio, who teaches in the art department at the University of Virginia, is the other artist.)
The opening of En Route (which runs until the end of April) and a long conversation that I had with Evans about her work, a few weeks ago, have finally prompted me to gather together some thoughts about this remarkable body of work.
Stacey Evans: Woman Walking. Virginia, 10:14:55AM, Winter 2010, Northeast Regional. (Photos copyright Stacey Evans. Click on any image to see a larger version.)
Evans describes Trainscapes as "a photographic exploration of the American life and landscape...." The images, which take the viewer from the Carolinas to California, from New Jersey to Montana, "exhibit the atmosphere of varying days, structures found in the built environment, and patterns of nature." "From my seat," she says, "I am given a privileged view of scenes not accessible by foot, plane, or car."
I think that this last point is one of the keys to the power of Evans' photos -- a train does indeed offer a unique perspective. Railroad lines travel through backyards; passengers rarely see the front of anything. Looking through train windows, they instead see the parts of cities, suburbs, farms, and homes that are hidden, turned away from the street. There's a kind of intimacy and, sometimes, a grittiness here. After all, backyards are private spaces, while front yards are public. They're not something outsiders are supposed to see. It's like entering someone's house through the back door.
Passengers aren't entering anyone's house, of course, and they're certainly not becoming intimate. But the feeling is real, even if it's also a fiction they've created from the briefest glimpse of someone else's life.
We've all had this experience. We see someone for a second or two train window, and we make a connection. We wonder who they are, where they're going, and where they've been. We might even tell ourselves a little story about them -- about the woman in a small Virginia town (above) or the man in a New Jersey yard (below).
Evans is very much aware of our irrepressible need to wonder -- to imagine an connection between us and them -- and she's embraced it. "I want to make sure that the human is present," she told me, "that there is the potential for a little narrative story." Looking at her photos conjures up the same feelings as gazing out the moving window -- we tell ourselves stories about the people we see in them. "Traveling on the train," she said, "you get a snippet of life. You don't necessarily know the full story.... You get a moment, a second, a glimpse of what's passing you by."
Stacey Evans: Cookout. New Jersey, 1:20:19PM, Spring 2010, Northeast Regional.
Evans went on to say that Trainscapes also has to do with "the human influence on the land, the built environment." This is an America of "manufactured landscapes," to use Edward Burtynsky's phrase, the America that the railroads made.
But as much as many of her photos have in common with Burtynsky's landscapes and, say, the New Topographics, this work isn't primarily about a desecrated land. There's no anger and little lamentation in these photos. Evans' America is altered, not ruined. In fact, there's an understated, but unapologetic beauty about images such as Woman Walking. Virginia, 10:14:55AM, Winter 2010, Northeast Regional and Lawn Mower. Montana, 12:01:39AM (above), Fall 2007, Empire Builder (below).
It's better to see Evans as an inheritor of what she calls Walker Evans' and Robert Frank's "American-based projects and studies." Like them, she said, "I've been interested in traveling America and documenting the country and the people in it." "But," she added, "it's been done." She knew that she had to find a different way to pursue the American landscape. The realization that one answer was the view out the window of a passenger train came slowly.
Stacey Evans: Lawn Mower. Montana, 12:01:39AM, Fall 2007, Empire Builder. (Remember, you can click on the photos to see larger versions.)
Evans started photographing from trains as a way of passing time. She doesn't like to drive, so she was often on trains when traveling to visit family and friends. As she accumulated images, she gradually came to see that they were more than mere snapshots. They spoke eloquently (in whispers more often than roars), and they resonated powerfully with other visions of America.
Yes, Evans has something in common with the photographers associated with the New Topographics and shares much with the likes of Walker Evans and Frank. She's also in conversation with photographers of such as Bill Allard and David Plowden, both of whom have produced their share of gently skeptical Americana. Yet the artist that she calls most forcefully to mind, isn't a photographer, at all. Instead, it's Edward Hopper, the painter.
There are a number of reasons that Evans' images remind me of Hopper. Sometimes, it's the way that she captures a similar light (see above). More often, however, it's the feel, not the look of the photos that evoke a Hopper-esque melancholy. Hopper's subjects are very often alone or alone in a crowd. They're lost in reverie or regret for reasons we'll never know, but will never stop wondering about. The emotional wallop of Evans' photos comes precisely from the fleeting glimpes we catch of people in the landscape and our realization that, however much we want to connect with them, we can't. The gulf of time and space that separates them from us from them is something that can never be bridged.
Stacey Evans: Passengers West Coast. California, 10:20:04AM, Summer 2010, Pacific Surfliner.
Trainscapes is a large project, by now, made up of over 60 images, and you're not going to find Hopper in each and every one. But you do always feel the presence of the train. Which brings me to my final point about this series -- it is many things at once.
On the one hand, it combines the documentary impulse with fine art photography. On the other, the unseen, yet ever present, Amtrack passenger train also brings the photos into the realm of railroad photography. In fact, given Evans' enthusiasm for rail travel, you could even call it railfan photography.
As fine art (and railfan) photographer Jeff Brouws has pointed out, railroad photography, broadly conceived, is a large and dynamic field. The best current work is far removed from stereotyped images -- whether pedestrian or dramatic -- of locomotives sending forth billowing clouds of steam. In a 2007 essay, he mentions Burtynsky and Plowden, along with Joel Sternfeld and Margaret Morton as being among those who have helped redefine what railroad photography can be. Like Evans', many of Brouws' examples are photographers who are largely unconcerned with the trains, in and of themselves. Burtynsky looked at the impact of rail lines on the landscape; Sternfeld photographed abandoned elevated tracks in New York City; Morton documented homeless communities living in railroad tunnels underneath New York's Upper West Side. They're all part of an expanding universe of railroad photography, and Evans fits right in.
The photographic project that Trainscapes most closely resembles may be Paul Fusco's RFK Funeral Train. In June 1968, Fusco was one of the few photographers on board the train the carried the body of Robert Kennedy from New York to Washington, DC, where he was to be buried. Like Evans, Fusco shot outward from the train. His images show the crowds, the thousands of people of all ages and colors, who lined the track to pay tribute to a man who once seemed destined to be president. Unlike Evans, he was concerned with the immediate moment, a monumental event. She's looking at things that are much smaller, yet, in many ways, just as important and enduring. Both bodies of work tell us a great deal about the nation and its people.
(Click on the poster to see a larger and more readable version.)
Evans plans to complete the project in 2012. Between then and now, she'll be visiting parts of the country that have so far eluded her, especially the desert southwest. Eventually, she hopes to publish Trainscapes as a book.
Trainscapes may be seen at the Baker Gallery, in the Walker Fine Arts Center, at Woodberry Forest School, until April 30th. If you're anywhere near the central Virginia or Washington, DC, area, you owe it to yourself to stop by. If that's not possible, you can visit Evans' website to see a selection.