Looking At The Lines
Am I turning into a gricer? The other weekend I spent three hours in front of the TV watching a succession of shows about trains and railways, whilst in the precious few moments of down time I have managed to eek out in the past month or so Iíve been playing Railroad Tycoon 3. Then last weekend on a whistle stop trip to London (please excuse the pun) I picked up a copy of The Story Of The London Underground. Itís a fascinating book, though I admit to having only barely scratched its surface and do find myself skimming over the technical details about the trains and their carriage and engine numbers (the photos of the trains though are fabulous) and delving instead to the descriptions and photographs of where the routes were built. And whilst Iím willing to accept that it might be wishful thinking on my part, I think this is what saves me from the world of the notebooked and thermosed-up trainspotter.

In his excellent review of Jem Southamís recent exhibition of photographs at Tate St Ives, David Evans writes in issue 41 of the Source journal about Fernand Baudelís comments in the late 1940s that challenged the traditional type of historical documentation that concentrates on personalities and politics. Baudel suggested that individuals were just ephemera, and that more solid materials like landscape and the diverse social activities formed by those landscapes were much more valuable as a means of exploring histories. I think this is what appeals to me. I think itís why Iíve got little interest in reading biographies and why I love looking at photographs of (mainly urban) landscapes throughout time. Itís why two of my favourite books of recent months have been Bernice Abbottsí New York In The Thirties and Douglas Levereís New York Changing. Abbottís photographs are rightly regarded as classics. They are exquisitely composed and enormously evocative. Looking through them you cannot help but be drawn into the worlds that unravel around the architecture and the automobiles, the train tracks and the tug boats. Itís hard too not to picture the great Noir movie stars supplanted into the urban scenes. Bogart on the El, Gloria Grahame at the downtown skyport, Jimmy Cagney coming out of Rothmanís pawnshop, the Dead End Kids hanging out at the newsstand. Levereís book meanwhile strives to reproduce Abbottís photographs in contemporary New York. The attention to detail is impressive, with Levere at times doing some great detective work to get the position for the shot just right. Even the time of year and day is judged to get the light and shadows just so. Levereís shots are juxtaposed with Abbottís originals, and itís a great exercise that shows as much about how all artists learn by copying other artists as it is about how much New York has (or has not) changed in seventy odd years.

Some of my favourite New York photographs are the ones of the old El train tracks. I love the Noirish shadows cast by their over engineered ironwork structures and there is something magically gritty and retro-futuristic about the very idea of train tracks running above roadways through the city. It was a delight then last weekend also to finally pick up a copy of Joel Sternfeldís Walking The High Line, and whilst itís not in fact about a stretch of the old El (instead its about a portion of the old new York Central Railroad), itís as close as weíre going to get in 2005. Iíd picked up on Sternfeldís large format American Prospects last year and been enormously impressed. His photographs there, but more particularly in Walking The High Line are a lot like Jem Southamís in many ways. It might be to do with the similar old large format plate cameras they both use, but there is a similar softness and subtlety of colour in both Sternfeldís High Line work and Southamís magnificent large shots of the china clay mining landscapes of Cornwall. Thereís also a connection through the act of walking, and Sternfeldís documentation of his walks along the mile and a half length of derelict elevated track that runs from the western edge of 34th Street (by 12th Avenue) to Gansevoort Street in ways too recall Richard Longís walking works, though of course transposed onto the urban landscape. Not that the photographs are about the urban landscape per se. Rather they are about the way nature reasserts itself within the built environment; are about the rambling reality of natureís seasonal signals as opposed to the carefully maintained forced realities of the municipal park system. Excellent essays by John Stilgoe and Adam Gopnik give insights into the photography and the High Line itself, with Gopnikís piece in particular giving a good historical context to the railroad line. With plans starting to be put into place for the transformation of the High Line into a maintained park element within the redevelopment of the West Side, it would seem as though the very essence that makes it so appealing in Sternfeldís work might be lost. And whilst the desire to provide a unique park experience for the public of New York City is admirable, I canít help feeling itís a bit of a shame. I guess folks will just need to look elsewhere to find beautiful urban decay. For more details, go to the Friends Of The High Line website, and check out the movie here.

Speaking of urban decay, another book to appeal recently has been Phil Bergersonís Shards Of America. There are shades of Aaron Siskindís infatuation with surface texture here, as well as an interest with urban walls and their man-made signs and symbols that is shared with the great Burhan Dogancay. Also, I have to admit Iím drawn to Bergersobís work because he seems interested in the same kind of things I am, and in fact his idea of pairing photographs throughout this work reminds me of what I was trying to achieve with my 2003 daily photography project. Naturally Bergersonís photographs are immeasurable better. For anyone intrigued by the urban fabric and by the found texts and signifiers found within the framed image of that fabric, Shards Of America is a must.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett