In May of 1977, I was depressed about the breakup of a relationship — which, for me, was not all that unusual back then. But an abiding interest in photography became a tool that I used to, if not cure my malaise, at least divert me from my sad-sack self while I figured out if I needed to seek professional help as an individual, or sign up for cheaper group therapy sessions with an odd-ball collection of other interpersonal failures. But I digress . . .
The “train project,” as I called it — photographing vintage rail cars at the Baltimore and Ohio Train Museum in Southwest Baltimore was something I had thought about for several years. Each time I had taken my two very young sons there — I saw them every-other weekend on court-approved visits — I would think about photographing parts of the rail cars, treating the smaller sections as abstractions, isolating areas to create compositions based on the size and shape relationships of the various elements. The pipes, levers, armatures, wheels, etc., were beautiful to me. The idea was to reduce the massive machines to circles, rectangles, triangles, and so on, visually “deconstructing” the cars, so to speak. It was a post-modern photographic concept before I knew what the term meant. In this digital age it is quaint to note that back then we made our photographic images by exposing rolls of chemically treated acetate film and developing the exposed frames in solutions mixed (in my case) in a tiny dark room rigged up in the kitchen area of my three room apartment. I kept out ambient light with a thick temporary curtain.
One design trick I used to emphasize and simplify the basic shapes was high contrast, reducing the component parts to basic black and white, with only a few middle tones. To get that effect, I relied on very fast film (Tri-X), which I exposed in bright sunlight for the juicy shadows that retain good detail, and used fast shutter speeds, then printed them on high contrast paper. All the rail car shots were composed “in camera” and printed full-frame. Whether or not I managed to make “art” with my approach may of course be debated, but I have no doubt that the activity worked well for me as therapy. At the very least, it got me through a bad emotional patch and on the path to more conventional help. (Click images for larger views.)
This is an edited re-post from 12/10/08
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