This 3D Narrative We’re So Eager To Share.
My railroad photography took off during my teenage years and continued unabated well into my twenties. My parents had purchased a decent camera (a new Polaroid) for taking the usual family photos and also allowed me to use it. The film packs were expensive and only limited to a handful of shots (eight if I recall). Of course, I shot photos of trains: photos that were horribly composed and usually out of focus (see above).
After getting a driver’s license and a camera of my own, my range extended to Richmond, where I shot the same scenes over and over, with only variable being the train itself. I had the sense that this stuff wasn’t going to be around forever and of wanting to document the railroad but had no organizing theme or principle to build on. I didn’t even realize you could do such a thing; I just shot whatever caught my eye. Naturally, with the passing years, I often think: “if only I had a picture of…”
Looking west from the highway overpass we see the west end of the station trackage, the crossing at Eigth Street with Newman Tower and interlocking beyond.
I think, in youth, we tend to take a scattergun approach to things. You’re exploring the world and not only learning what’s of interest to you but also how you respond to those things. In a sense you’re developing, or maybe defining is the better word, a form of meaning from these encounters and associations that will stay with you for many years, perhaps a lifetime. If so, how might one understand and apply the impact of early railfan experiences beyond the obvious attempts to recreate them in miniature?
I’ve given this far more thought than is probably healthy and have drawn a few simple conclusions from my own experience. Nothing that follows is meant to be an ironclad rule.
To begin, I eventually realized that my strongest encounters with trains were very intimate in nature, in that the train came to a given spot where I could observe or interact with it. For example, I waited at the depot for No. 3 to arrive, or stood on the overpass at Nineteenth Street, or went outside when the yard engine came to switch Centerville and so on. By contrast, I seldom chased a train across the landscape, although I did several times later on. However, those experiences were far less memorable, mainly because the places and trains weren’t those familiar old friends.
In concert with my encounters was the type of operations I was consistently exposed to. I saw plenty of mainline action, sometimes even multiple trains at once and the images and sounding fury was impressive but also ephemeral as a train would approach, roar past and be quickly gone. I found the slower operations more satisfying and understandable as there was time to become immersed in the action. It’s taken me forty years to understand these lessons because like others, I was in the deep end of the emphasis on track planning.
Consider an analogy from art.
Amateurs in any practice tend to overly focus on tools and technique. How to draw this shape, mix that color, achieve that effect and so on. Professional artists move beyond such concerns to the broader world of ideas. They see brushes, paints, paper and canvas for what they are: tools of expression. This is how I treat track planning concerns like curves, turnout sizes and such. They are mere tools to be used (or not) in expressing deeper ideas around railroading in miniature.
Thinking back to your own early experiences with trains, what direction would you move in? Would you probe deeply, or merely attempt to replicate them to whatever degree was achievable with the resources at hand?
We all know the stomach churning process outlined in the literature. We make our peace with shorter radius curves than we want. Swallow the notion that shorter turnouts allow more tracks and car capacity, turn a deaf ear to the empty promise of selective compression, while compromise builds upon compromise. I’ve plunged head first into this swamp many times and started the Indiana & Whitewater in exactly this manner.
The current project is taking a different path. I’m exploring the idea of what gives a location a sense of place. How do you represent such an intangible quality in a way others might relate to? Can one make the internal, external? (Hint, novelists do this all the time.) I know one thing for certain; the answer has nothing to do with curve radius and frog numbers. These are just forms upon which to build something more substantial.
Beyond the physicality of it, a layout is also a form of communication. We are conveying a time and place, a sense of motion coupled to a greater purpose. We put forth a sense of craft and, however loosely defined, a personal vision of what it all means to us. In the process we expect visitors and participants to interact with and understand this 3D narrative we’re so eager to share. We need to give them adequate clues to aid their understanding but, if we can’t see beyond the surface of our layout efforts, how do we think others will? In this regard, the realm of art and design has much to teach us.
Merry Christmas to all and thank you for being here.