Freight Train to Anywhere

Freight Train Passing, Denver CO, March 2012

This March I spent a few days in Denver to give an artist talk, along with Sama AlShaibi, and see my work at the CVA as part of the Semblance show, curated by Tomiko Jones and Cecily Cullen. I brought along my old speed graphic and some new 4×5 film that I hadn’t had a chance to try out, Arista EDU 200. This was to do a workshop on large format portrait photography for one of Tomiko’s classes. The demo was a bit of a fiasco with some untested technology, but it was a lot of fun trying out some new techniques and learning along with the students. The next day we had a bit of free time, so Tomiko took me cruising randomly around Denver looking for pictures to capture with our view cameras. What fun! I’ve not done that in ages. We found this desolate spot by the train tracks and set up our cameras on opposite sides of the snow pile to the right of this shot. As it happened, it seems that at least with my lens, a rare 165mm f/2.5 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar ca. 1920, made for a half plate “tropical camera” that doesn’t quite cover 4×5, I should have rated the film more like ISO 100, but who knows, as I really didn’t meter the scene & this was the first time I”ve used this particular film. The light was fading fast and the train was going faster, so I just guessed the exposure, and managed to fire off 6 shots as it rolled by. They all turned out pretty thin, so I tried an experiment by rephotographing the negatives on a light table with the macro lens on my NEX-7, then stacking the exposures as layers and merging the digital images in Photoshop. In spite of, or maybe because of its convoluted workflow, lack of critical sharpness, vignetted corners, and gloomy tonality I quite like the resulting image. The multiple layers of the passing train speaks to me of time’s relentless erosion, while the location, the gritty Denver train yard, brings me back to youthful readings of Jack Kerouac’s Denver adventures. The pile of melting snow signals the demise of winter, and the ensuing rush of restlessness and wanderlust that always arrives with the season. All of that makes me want to hit the road. This year the feeling is even more acute, as for the first time in more than a decade, I don’t have the slightest clue what I am going to do a month from now. Once my grades are turned in, student work documented, and my office cleaned out, I’m going to be officially unemployed. Trying to make plans amidst this uncertainty seems almost comedic, as I cope with a Molotov cocktail recipe of feelings including anger, loss, fear, anticipation, and excitement.

Right after I made this image, in my rush to make one more composition in the fading light, I unscrewed the wrong knob on my tripod head, sending the camera crashing onto the concrete. The good news is that my precious lens survived the fall undamaged, and I’ve taken the undamaged body & shutter box of the wrecked camera and converted it into a behind the lens shutter so I can do fast exposures on my 8×10 camera with old shutterless lenses. Maybe I can find an old Petzval to put on there. This little project has distracted me a bit from the stress of not knowing what I’m going to do next. Meanwhile, I will take that comfort in knowing that the train was going somewhere, even if I don’t know its final destination.

Posted by scoopneil


I’m sorry to hear about your camera! I went to check one out at an antique shop after you gave us the demo (Tomiko’s class) and it’s on my wish list haha. But it sounds like it worked out for your 8×10!.. I really like this picture. I feel I am in a similar place right now artistically with layering different times of the same place… something about over-lapping time to create something timeless. The train is going somewhere and you will always be going somewhere. You’re a very admired photographer and you should have no worries about what is next, instead just excitement for new doors, new opportunities and new art!


Come to Mexico…

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