Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs

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Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs
By Jeff Brouws & Wendy Burton
W.W. Norton – $39.95

Far too cryptic for its own good? A book of esoteric love?

As stated at the very outset of Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs: ”The patent of time will transform any artifact into an object of veneration” (Sarah Greenough, The Art of the American Snapshot).” Indeed it might, which is why this rather remarkable collection of images, taken by both passionate amateurs and more accomplished photographers alike, is as all encompassing as it is.

I say all encompassing, for while the actual photographs on the page may trigger a certain remembrance of time or place, transport or poignancy, there’s also a fair bit of self-injected, subliminality taking place. A subliminality, triggered by the grain, contrast or composure of a certain photograph, which, depending on one’s own history and love of trains, will obviously differ in range of depth from person to person. Although what accounts for this utterly unostentatious collection, is its rather expansive inclusion of humble snapshots, albumen prints, stereographs, real photo postcards, glass-plate negatives and everything in-between.

Thus fully deserving a definition that is rich with historical value and meaning, while the photographs themselves are often ”imbued with a naive artfulness and beauty.”

To be sure, Jeff Brouws has clearly been ”collecting vernacular railroad photographs for many years, poring through disorganized boxes of snapshots at train shows and swap meets.” Repelte with a rabid, editorial eye for fine detail, ”he has sought out the unusual, the lyrical, the pastoral, and the urban, ultimately assembling a collection that includes railroad landscapes, locomotives, infrastructure, and workers, primarily during the age of steam.” All of which is reinforced in the book’s Introduction, where Brouws (who has been published in Trains, the NRHS Bulletin and the R&LHS Quarterly) unsurprisingly writes: ”The art of collecting, for most human beings, seems to be encoded in our genetic makeup – a trait perhaps passed down from our hunter-gatherer origins […]. I simply enjoyed the collecting process and the pleasures it brought. Later, as an adult, photography books became my passion; new shelves from IKEA never remained empty for long. I also began to understand that assembling collections, like the one contained between these covers, was a way to bestow order on the universe, create meaning, and temporarily control the arbitrary chaos we call life.”

Might it be therefore said that this fascinating assemblage will appeal to both fans of vernacular photography and railroad enthusiasts alike. Accompanied by an essay that includes a thoughtful, well-researched discussion of the aesthetic evolution of railroad photography in the early to mid-twentieth century and the phenomenon of the International Engine Picture Club (which acted as a clearing house and swapping mechanism for rail fans), Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is by no means Brouws only publication. Along with his wife Wendy Burton – a photographer whose work is included in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the North Dakota Museum of Art among others – the photographer and part-time writer already has nine books to his credit, having already authored five on railroad photography alone.

That his photography can be viewed in major institutional collections in the US – including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – underlines the degree to which these particular photographs are aligned with true grit and muchos gravitas.

David Marx

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