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Steam: An Enduring Legacy: The Railroad Photographs of Joel Jensen Hardcover – October 17, 2011
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I know, that's saying a lot...but I can say no less.
I thought I was familiar with Joel's work, which recently has gained attention for a post-modern look at railroading (Railroad Noir: The American West at the End of the Twentieth Century (Railroads Past and Present) with Linda Niemann) and the Fall 2010 issue of the NRHS Bulletin dedicated entirely to his photographs of (mostly) deteriorating railroad depots accompanied by Alexander Craghead's scholarly essay on the depot's place in the American landscape. I was also familiar with much of his work that was more in line with what we would consider to be straightforward railroad photography, yet infused with a unique and recognizable perspective.
But I wasn't ready for this.
Joel has been photographing steam locomotives for over 25 years, since the mid 1980s. Of course that means working around fan trips, tourist railroads, railfans desperate to get their own photographs, untrained crowds of onlookers around every station stop, and sometimes, locomotives being used in historically inaccurate locations and contexts. If these issues ever bothered Jensen, it's not obvious. In fact it's rarely apparent that these images were made under any circumstances other than Joel finding himself alone in a vast landscape with a steam powered train under a great western sky, along an abandoned transcontinental highway, snow drifts, galloping horses or the glowing aspen trees of autumn. Of course there are images of fans and children which illustrate the appreciation that nearly everyone has for these trains, along with strong portraits of dedicated volunteers who keep these operations going. Mood, detail, grease, rust, smoke and flesh are all here. Joel has somehow managed to create an accessible body of work that retains all of his artistic integrity. I have to admit that I had more than a few "why-didn't-I-think-of-that" moments as looked at this book.
All of these wonderful images are black and white, printed with a black and gray duotone process and are presented in the common fine-arts format of one photograph per page with an occasional image run in a larger size across two facing pages. There is a brief caption that accompanies each one. Like other books in this series, the reproductions match the original images very closely in detail and tonal range with strong blacks with adequate detail in the shadow areas. I'm sure there will be more than a few readers who will be motivated to put a roll of Tri-X in their old film camera or even do a misguided grayscale conversion to one of their digital images just to see what they can do. Sadly, most of these folks will rediscover the reality that they don't understand light well enough to make satisfying black and white images anything close to these.
I am aware of at least one image in this book that was originally photographed on color print film, a medium that Joel used enthusiastically, to the chagrin of some magazine editors. There are possibly others, but unless you've seen a color version of any of these prints, you wouldn't suspect a thing. I don't think it really matters anyway. Color images in this book just would have been inappropriate in my opinion.
The photographs feature many of the well-known modern steam operations, most notably the Nevada Northern (Joel lives in Ely, Nevada), Heber Valley, Cumbres and Toltec, Durango and Silverton, the Sierra Railway, Union Pacific's steam fleet, and individual restored locomotives such as Santa Fe 3751, Milwaukee 261, Southern Pacific 4449, 2472 and 786, and many others. However, don't make the mistake that these are fan trip photos like everyone else's. Joel has a gift for photographing these trains with the same authenticity with which they've been restored and maintained. These images combine to create the impression that Jensen has somehow managed to wander the west in a parallel universe that all of us would wish to discover, but haven't.
The book's introduction by Scott Lothes describes the appeal of the steam locomotive in layman's terms, its context in American history, poignantly highlighting, for example, that each hour of operation for Milwaukee Road 261 requires 100 hours of behind-the-scenes work! John Gruber's essay "Railroad Photographs and Preservation" documents the many organized efforts responsible for keeping these locomotives and their infrastructure operational. It's amazing to realize that there were about 221 steam locomotives that operated for the public in the United States and Canada during 2010. Finally, Jeff Brouws offers an afterword that describes Joel's photography as a "hybrid style - equally emphasizing hardware and humanism" along with a very perfunctory biography (I suspect Joel wanted it that way).
My one disappointment with this fine book is that it lacks the thumbnail references found in the back pages of the aforementioned books featuring the work of Steinheimer, Shaughnessy and Plowden. Short of keeping a bookmark with a pencil to note the pages you'd like to recall, you'll need a good memory to find the atmospheric masterpiece of Nevada Northern 93 in the Ely, Nevada, enginehouse (page 61), the UP 844/3985 doubleheader grinding upgrade past gas station ruins on the old Lincoln Highway in Wyoming (page 104), or a nicely panned portrait of Southern Pacific 786 approaching Burnett, Texas (page 129).
Sleeping in the back of a 10-year old pickup truck, subsisting on odd jobs in the middle of nowhere, Joel Jensen has managed to do what wealthier railfans with tricked out camera bags, weeks of paid vacation time, and untold airline miles have tried to do, that is capture the nearly lost essence of steam railroading on the American landscape long after the rest of us contented ourselves with images of stack trains in an increasingly sterile railroad environment.
I was going to say something that would give the reader a bit of insight into Joel Jensen... but after reading the foregoing comments, anything I'd say would just demonstrate how inarticulate I can be.
Try this; read out loud (emphasis on "loud") the reviews already written, BUY THE BOOK and wait with anticipation for it's delivery. In about a week, you'll be rewarded. Sit down with some Jim or other beverage and tell others to leave you alone.
Did I say, "Buy this book."; well... stop messing around!
The book is not a guidebook but an extended photographic journey through the survivors of the steam era. It begins with an essay by writer-photographer Scott Lothes, who provides a brief introduction to the cultural importance of the steam locomotive. The essay tells us the basics, but to anyone with knowledge of railroad history it will provide little new; clearly this is meant as a primer for the uninitiated, and it serves this job well. Following this, the bulk of the photographs appear in a gallery section. There is no set sequence, with the subjects bouncing back and forth through time and geography. Most of these images are displayed one-per-page, with healthy white margins at all sides. After the photograph section of the book is another essay, this time by John Gruber, founder and president of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art. Gruber relates an overview of preservation and the steam locomotive, including some interesting tidbits about early, 19th century preservation movements and an able survey of contemporary efforts. He completes his essay with an overview of photography's relationship with the preserved steam locomotive. An afterword penned by photographer Jeff Brouws follows, with an apt assessment of Jensen's photographic style. A page of acknowledgements from Jensen complete the work.
I am intimately familiar with the tourist and heritage railway world, and so, despite my respect for the photographer and the authors, I was not anticipating this book to be particularly impressive. Aiding me in this pre-judgement was my familiarity with other works on this subject, as described above. I could not, in the end, have been more wrong. This work is a success that it transcends subject matter interest, and would serve to appeal even to the least nostalgic of railroad enthusiasts, if only they can be convinced to pick it up and look through it past its opening pages.
For these first few pages in, it is all billowing steam and dramatic light, and one might begin to fear that this will be yet one more album in the tradition of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, pleasant in a strawberry milkshake sort of way but not particularly memorable in its own right. It's not that these dramatic images are bad: they are neither technically nor artistically flawed, but they are also of a genre that is not unfamiliar. But then, on page 22, it all changes in a characteristic Jensen fashion. The photo here, of two large steam locomotives and their long train of passenger cars silhoutted against a damp sky, is one of my favorites from this photographer, and I am disappointed at how small that the image runs in this book; nevertheless it breaks through the romantic bombast and begins a pattern of complex variety that marks this book as something special. Opposite this image is another fine stand-out, an image showing the roughshod nature of narrow gauge railroads, with a wandering pair of steel rails, barely any ties showing, splayed out through a ramshackle landscape, a tiny locomotive working hard to traverse the route. All darks and midtones, with barely a fleck of highlight anywhere, the image is teeth-gnashing and evocative.
The human aspect of these survivors is not neglected, and may in fact be one of the volume's chief strengths. The careful inclusion of crewmen and other workers is a key aspect of this book's DNA. From trackworkers hammering in spikes, to groundlings passing hand signals, to roundhouse monkeys wrestling with the oversize parts of these steel behemoths, people are a subtle but integral part to the visual story Jensen lays out for us. Sometimes they are ghostly figures, caught at work amidst the steam, while at other times, such as with a Durango and Silverton crew shown in a photo on page 57, they are cocky, defensive, weary, and proud, staring straight at the camera for a portrait the likes of which is as old as the relationship between the steam locomotive and cameras. Other similarly successful images include a portrait of a crewman for the ATSF 3751 on page 81, a Mount Rainier Scenic engineer on page 124, and mechanical workers from the Durango on 134 and 159. In some cases, these people wear the clothes of railroaders and shop workers for a century, bibs and long-sleeved work shirts and hard steel-toed boots, but in others they sport plastic hard hats and, in the case of the last of these images, modern wrap-around sunglasses. Often, photographers of contemporary steam seek to exclude such modern details, to try and recreate some sense of what they think the past was like, favoring costumes and playacting. Jensen here rejects this, and comes out with material that is intensely modern yet intensely authentic in ways that those seeking the Colonial Williamsburg of steam railroading always fail to achieve. These men look like the railroaders of the past because they are the railroaders of the past, and things like modern sunglasses don't break the effect because such little trappings cannot contradict authenticity.
Failings? Few. One minor quibble is that the book is exclusively western material, but the book does not anywhere openly acknowledge this regional focus. This said, the book is subtitled as "the railroad photographs of Joel Jensen," and Joel is a creature of the West, a photographer who is constantly roaming, constantly alone, and who sees the world through different eyes. And in the end, the artistic achievement of the photographer's work makes complaints about his geographic biases seem trivial.
Overall production values are high, as one would expect in a book from a leading publisher such as Norton. That said, there are a few minor quibbles. The paper seems a tad thinner than I am used to expecting in such a book, so that when darker images are followed by a large white space on the next page, a very faint ghost can be read through the paper. It is, however, barely perceptible, and did not significantly detract from my enjoyment of the book. As for the photos themselves, reproduction is generally of high quality. There are times when I expected more shadow detail, but this is a common failing of black-and-white reproduction in printed matter, and overall Norton has done a great job with this. My only significant quibble with reproduction is with some of the larger images displayed across the gutter; a few, such as the image of an ATSF steam engine passing behind a graveyard on pages 70 and 71, appear rather soft, as if the prints had been scanned and then displayed larger than their original size.
This book at the end of the day is not at all about what it will be labelled as: it is not a photography book about tourist and heritage steam railroads. Instead, it is a book about undying tradition. No work has ever made contemporary steam more noble, more enviable, or harder work. The contradictions and anachronisms of these surviving steam locomotives and the crew that care for them are captured nakedly in Jensen's photos, showing us something precious, something that is not at all playacting, but instead an unbroken thread to the relationship between man and steam that began on this continent in Antebellum times. This book will be of especial interest to those who appreciate steam locomotives, the interplay of railroads and geography, and the photography of railroads.