A little while ago, in his “Thin Red Line” column, David Wilcock, the railway journalist and photographer challenged railway photographers to become more imaginative to look beyond the ¾ front view from tried and tested locations – the ‘Kinchley Lane syndrome’, as he described it. As an exemplar Wilcock chose the work of Colin Gifford, and Gifford was, unquestionably, one of the great railway photographers. However, what Gifford photographed was the death throes of the steam operated railway, warts and all. Grimy, steam-oozing, work stained locomotives in back streets and sidings, in run down engine sheds, or down some ‘freight’ only branch line, scenes which, sadly for some, are no longer with us. The pits are shut, many of the terraced houses have been demolished, one of Gifford’s more potent images is of terraced houses in Accrington being demolished, as a goods train passes in the background. Now, even the humble 20ton mineral wagon is a part of the ‘heritage’ ‘Windcutter’ rake. Today’s railway photographers simply do not have the trains, landscapes or opportunities that Gifford and his peers worked with. In short, we are where we are.
Wilcock acknowledges that Gifford’s work went beyond simple railway photography, entering the realms of social documentary. Gifford worked predominantly in monochrome whereas today’s photographer works primarily with colour – this alone creates a very different atmosphere and flavour to a photograph. Today a debate rages about the levels of digital manipulation – in Gifford’s era there was still manipulation and hours could be spent dodging and shading and experimenting with different exposures in the darkroom – a finished print could be, and often was, a very different picture to the one captured on the negative.
Gifford was an Art School graduate and would, as a result, have been taught about composition, aesthetics, and ‘creative’ techniques and thinking. The benefit of his education in the creative arts should not be underestimated. There is another issue here and one which is central to this debate and that is – one man’s ‘great photograph’ is another man’s ‘what’s that all about’. Monet, Turner, and Van Gogh painted ‘railway pictures’ but one wouldn’t call them ‘railway artists’ as we would Cuneo, or Philip Hawkins. Indeed what seems to be most valued in ‘railway’ artistry is photo-realism. The nearer to photographic reality the railway artist gets the greater is the general acclaim, amongst lovers of ‘railway’ art. Surely there is a contradiction here? On the one hand we want our ‘railway’ artist to produce works with a high degree of ‘photo-realism’ whilst wanting our railway photographers to become more artistic / imaginative in their interpretation of the steam railway.
The best photographs, and for that matter the best paintings, are usually as much about the light and its quality as about the actual subject. I’ve heard photographers on the lineside say ‘if there’s no sun they don’t even bother going out to take pictures’ – and editors do, most definitely, favour the sunlit shot. Why shouldn’t they when it is the light which brings the picture to life.
However, Gifford made use of the flat light of a grey misty morning in a manner which is hard to duplicate for many of the reasons I’ve already given. Similarly, Gifford’s use of light in his ‘engine shed’ photographs was largely possible only because of the dilapidated structures of the sheds themselves. Today we are very short of dilapidated engine sheds – Didcot, Tysely, Barrow Hill, and Marley Hill, on the Tanfield Railway, are practically the only surviving examples and they are not really noted for their dilapidation. Carnforth with its Cenotaph coaling plant is, to all intents and purposes, off limits.
Over the years there has been a steady growth in the ‘photo charter’ market; photo charters usually consist of smallish numbers of people banding together to hire a locomotive and train, specifically to cater to their photographic requirements, be they run pasts with volumes of black clag, or posed shots, after dark, in a station, with accompanying ‘re-enactors’ in suitable period garb. Even, O Winston Link style, night time line side photography is staged, with the engine crews in on the act. Whether all this is ‘being more creative’ is, perhaps, debatable. What seems to be going on is re-creative, in so much as tableaux are being designed, actors posed, lighting set, not to create something new and novel, but to re-capture scenes, which were once common-place, the lone couple, a la Brief Encounter, or the squaddie going back to barracks, I’m sure you get the picture. This nostalgically mediated past, digitally enhanced, and meticulously detailed does move away from Wilcock’s ‘Kinchley Lane Syndrome’ and ¾ front view, but in what direction.
Unlike yesteryear, when trains rumbled by, day and night, all year round, and in all weathers, today’s steam railway photographer has limited locations, limited running days, and limited motive power and that’s not to mention that trains such as goods, minerals, parcels, TPOs etc; are even more limited, usually only appearing for gala events, or in the aforementioned photo charters. Night time and ‘after dark’ operations are similarly limited in scope and number. The railway landscape too has changed and is still changing. The views of old mills are now of ‘industrial’ units, the rows of terraced houses, which were being bulldozed in Gifford’s photographs, are now ‘modern’ housing complexes, lines of trees and shrubbery obscure once open views.
The very nature of the heritage railway line takes it away from the mundane, workaday, railway Gifford photographed so eloquently. The heritage environment isn’t about bulldozed houses, piles of rubble, and burning rafters, it’s more of a cream tea and gentility vision – pictures of a grim, grey, Northern wastelands don’t really feature as a tourist draw.
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