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August 26 - October 17, 2003 at A Studio Gallery, Valley

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

The spirit of the locomotive is deeply embedded in the psyche of the American culture. The strength and power of the train has long been a symbol of the vitality of the American people and economy. It was the train that helped open the West; and the locomotive served as a symbol of the strength of the steel age, propelling America into the forefront as a world power. So it is fascinating and ironic that a few generations later, we look at the train, once the pinnacle of speed and modernity, as an object to be viewed with nostalgia. It is an endangered species belonging to a romantic past.

Irv Hirsch, himself a railroad employee rather than a professional photographer, has turned his passion and camera to the vanishing steam locomotive. When his preferred medium of super-8 sound film vanished from the market, he turned to black and white photography to continue his goal of preserving images of these relics. His recent series concentrates on the disappearing sugar mill railroads in Cuba and the Jitong railway of Inner Mongolia in China. His passion for the rail translates into a series of images that are steeped in a deeply romantic aura.

The train has long been an object for study by some of our key art photographers. Alfred Stieglitz’s historic image, The Hand of Man, captures the mystery of the train yard. Edward Steichen and Charles Sheeler both created masterpieces using the train as subject.

While Hirsch does not attempt to push the artistic envelope with his images like some of his distinguished predecessors, his photographs demonstrate an appreciation and understanding for the history of this medium. They are beautifully crafted and composed images that serve to document the last vestiges of this vanishing phenomenon.

"Untitled" (1), 2003, black
and white photograph.

"Untitled" (2), 2003, black
and white photograph.

"Untitled" (3), 2003, black
and white photograph.

"Untitled" (4), 2003, black
and white photograph.

The only recollection most American have of the steam engine is either from the movies or a ride at a theme park. Hirsch’s photographs dramatically capture the billowing plumes of smoke that are the trademarks of this older mode of transportation, evoking far more direct feelings for the old engines than contemporary simulacra ever could. We cannot help but be mesmerized by the dark, rolling clouds highlighted against the sky. The mountain of clouds that pour from the locomotive are stunning, calling up complex and dormant associations. The clouds serve as a reminder that not too long ago we measured vast distances with the clicking of metal wheels on the rail, not by the roar of jet engines. Yet post-industrial eyes might also see, not the poetry of it all, but the massive amounts of pollution that is being pumped into the atmosphere.

One stunning image depicts a locomotive approaching a tunnel, a standard motif used by train photographers. Hirsch’s photograph is beautiful and holds its own against the medium’s historic past. The black arch of the tunnel frames the engine that is also bathed in darkness. We can only see the number and light on the engine that is emerging out of a cloud of smoke. On the right, a glimpse of the distant snow-covered landscape is faintly visible. The subtle tonality of the image is seductive, and the smoke contrasts dramatically with the starkness of the tunnel’s framing arch.

Another evocative and expressive image is that of a steam engine and three cars running along the rails, framed in the foreground by snow-covered fields. Right behind the train is a stand of trees, their limbs bare in the cold winter environment. The distant mountains are softly bathed in mist. The trail of white smoke pouring from the engine gives the train the sensation of speed.

It is tempting to speculate about the passengers on these trains, their lives and destinations. One also feels for the photographer, huddled with his camera in the snow and cold, patiently awaiting the train and hoping for the perfect image.