Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Christmas Gift to Myself. . .

I rarely ask my wife for anything for Christmas; I feel if I really want something, I’ll just go and purchase it, anyway, so basking in the glow of receiving a set of Christmas-themed pancake batter molds from my sister and plug adapters useful in several foreign countries from my wife, I thought I’d head over to and treat myself to Jim Shaughnessy and Jeff Brouws' new book, "The Call of Trains." The price was right, and for the money I saved off list, I decided to pick up, sight unseen, the "Frequently Bought. . . " suggestion from Amazon, "China: The World's Last Steam Railway," by British photographers John Tickner, Gordon Edgar and Adrian Freeman.

I knew nothing of this book (perhaps if I read Railfan & Railroad magazine I'd have seen the review for it this past year!), but I've always been intrigued by the last years of big-time Chinese steam that the gorgeous thumbnail image of a backlit QJ at sunrise made me bite. What am I out? Around $22? A steal, and if the book is a klunker, I know a few folks who wouldn’t mind me re-gifting it to them. But that ain’t going to happen, as it turns out.

First, the Shaughnessy book: I expected great things from it, and it delivered. I do feel, though, that for a photographer who is still living, there’s precious little of Shaughnessy in the book besides his photographs. I appreciate Brouws’ attempts at placing his work in the context of other rail photographers, but felt he was reaching a bit to elaborate on influences on his work that didn’t exist. . . I’d much rather read more tales from the road on how Jim took these great photographs than expositions on photographic history. Shaughnessy’s photographs crackle with life, but the text doesn’t do the same: even a reconstruction of a nine-day photo Safari in 1956 is created from Shaughessy’s expense and mileage logs, rather than an oral presentation from the man who took the trip. But I digress. . .

The revelation which came out of the box from Amazon wasn’t the Shaughnessy book, but rather “China : The World’s Last Steam Railway”—a title that I’d rate now as the best railroad photography book in my collection. . .it’s THAT good. The reproduction and layout are first-rate—the photographs leap off the page, a collection of medium-format color and black and white images created between 1997 and 2005. I’d certainly rate the photographic work of the three authors as being at least as good as the best U.S. railroad photographers, and their sense of place and time imbued in their work certainly raises it far above other “train books.” With all the discussion on the Yahoogroup "Observation Car" about “artsy-fartsy”photography, I’m surprised that this book hasn’t been mentioned. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised—Americans are a pretty provincial lot, and this is certainly true when it comes to their interests in railroads. I’m sure that many American fans would deride this book for too many “people photos,” or too much glint, or too many views of small trains in big settings, or for the numerous mood tones created on smoggy, grey, foggy days. Is it art? Is it photojournalism? Yes, and yes, and really, what’s the difference?

Clearly, these guys came for the steam, but came back with far, far more. I don’t sense a big difference in their individual photographic styles: they’re each one part Galen Rowell, one part Edward Steichen, one part Sebastio Salgado: equally adept at stunning black and white and beautiful color work, comfortable with portraiture as well as landscape. The photographers don’t ignore the sweeping changes taking place in China that the demise of steam railroading is but a small part of: We see coal miners in Shibanxi and Xiaoyutou pushing small lorries of coal out of mines by hand, then loading that coal into rail cars using shovels; local residents banging on the sides of passing coal trains in an attempt to dislodge loose coal to forage for their home stoves; workers pushing their bicycles along snowy walking paths next to the rail line and children sledding on frozen ponds while steam trains pass in the background. Draft horses, their nostrils lined in ice, wait patiently under loading chutes for the wagons they pull to be replenished with coal. These are scenes we’re familiar with from the early 20th century in America , before home electricity, heavy machinery, and labor unions—but everyday life today in rural China.

The photographs are both intimate and sweeping: views of an industrial valley from high atop a slag heap above a steel mill or from a hillside above a landscape of small houses covered in a fresh snowfall, passing trains an exclamation point below a plume of steam.

The chapters are organized among regions or types of railroads: the narrow gauge logging railroads; industrial, steel mill or coal mine railroads; or the well-known Ji-Tong line, for instance. Diesels operate nearly all of them now, the Chinese government making good on a commitment to eradicate steam locomotives on mainlines by the time of the Bejing Olympics last year. The text presents both an overview of the operations photographed and recollections of the photographers of their travels in China. It’s clear from these tales that the difficulties encountered—language, customs, weather—made the photographers work that much harder for their pictures, and the reader is rewarded for their effort. The endpapers feature a stylized map pinpointing locations where the photographs were made; to someone unfamiliar with China ’s rail network, including the railways on the map would’ve helped me make sense of how it all fits together. Perhaps a few more photographs of the railroaders who work on the steam locomotives would've been welcome, but I don't otherwise see any glaring holes in the coverage.

Seeing the scope and quality of the images in this book leaves me with mixed emotions: I kick myself for not pursuing the opportunity to go back in 2001, but I realize that whatever photographs I did come back with would hardly compare with the work of photographers Tickner, Edgar and Freeman.

You won't be disappointed by plunking down a small pittance for one of the most amazing books of railway photography I've ever seen.


ABC said...

A great review, Blair. My thoughts echo yours on the Shaughnessy Book, and I'd love to have seen more from Jim.

That said, I think that would have made it a different book, it would have been more clearly "railfan oriented", while I think Jeff was trying to make a beachhead to get Jim considered a photographer of merit in the non-railfan world.

The introduction felt like it was either trying too hard, or that it was really the heart of a book about railroad photography in general, rather than about Jim.

Regardless the book's strong points greatly outweigh its weaknesses, and it's a fine addition to my bookshelf, even though I don't even really go in for the territory he mostly covered.

Elrond L said...

Thanks for the reviews, Blair. I had both books on the master Christmas list, plus Joe McMillan's New Mexico book, and I was 2 for 3... the China book wasn't under the tree, but it will be part of my next Amazon order. For the record, I've never held a copy but the cover & samples were enough to grab me. Your review just sealed it.

Haven't had time to read the Shaughnessy book yet, but it looks terrific. Just wish some of those thumbnail-size images were bigger.

Brian S said...

Thanks for the great review. I have added a post to my own (new) blog directing readers to your site.

Thanks again.