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Sunsets and Long Exposure Photography on the Rails

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent my evenings exploring the rails, photographing at one of my favorite times of the day – sunset. While one generally loses the illumination of the sun’s rays, you gain a multitude of colors in the sky… and to me, there is just something magical about that.

In terms of night photography – or at least, what railfans tend to think about night photography – one usually uses artificial lights to illuminate a posed, unmoving train. Though it seems to be the en vogue thing to do these days, I see little reason to do so other than “because we can.” Most seem to do it for the novelty, or because all the “cool kids” are doing it. Many that take part look to evoke the work of O. Winston Link, arguably the best night railroad photographer ever (though Jack Delano, whose photographs I featured last week, was also an accomplished night photographer – it was never really his “claim to fame,” however). Unfortunately, most fall flat in their endeavor to “be like Link.” While I can see the merits of photographing steam trains at night (the lower light allows one to capture sweeping plumes of smoke from the engine), I see little reason to do it with modern trains. After dark I find it far more fun to capture not the train itself, but the train’s movement, and its environment.

Because of the low ambient light, long exposure photography allows one to record the movement of the train, rendered as blurs of light. In order to get a proper exposure, your camera shutter is open for longer – in some cases for 15 seconds or more (thus a stable resting place, preferably a tripod, is required). Done right, any moving object in the frame shows up as a blur, or a streak. Modern electric trains, like Metro-North’s M7s and M8s, with their shiny and smooth exteriors and LED lights lend themselves to this, becoming graceful blurs. Instead of artificial light, one uses the “natural” (or as natural as the light off a cityscape could be), and the intense colors of a sunset to evoke a completely different mood. Since I don’t really have a post lined up for this week, I figured I’d share some of my recent photographs taken at sunset, or at night… and maybe convince some of you that there is fun to be had after dark, far away from the now all too common “night photo sessions.”

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The life of a Grand Central commuter – Photos from the Farm Security Administration

In the late 1930’s, when the United States was still in throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted various economic programs focusing on recovery called the New Deal. One of the new federal agencies established by the New Deal was called the Resettlement Administration, a group that focused on building relief camps for migrant workers and refugees from the droughts in the southwest. A photography project to document the work was established, and when the Resettlement Administration later became the Farm Security Administration, the documentary photography project was expanded. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers captured some very iconic images of American life during and after the Depression, or as he said “introducing America to Americans.”

 
Typical photos from the Farm Security Administration photo documentary project – Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange at left, and Sharecropper by Walker Evans on the right.

While the Farm Security Administration photographers captured many images of Americans struggling through tough times, you may be surprised to note that not all of the photos were of farmers and migrant workers, or even poverty. The FSA’s photo archives contain many images of just regular American life between the years 1935 and 1944 – including several shots in Grand Central Terminal. Two particular photos, captured by visual anthropologist and FSA photographer John Collier, are quite iconic, and have even used on video boards in Grand Central Terminal advertising its upcoming centennial.

Below you’ll find some of Collier’s photos from Grand Central, including the two more famous ones, all taken in October of 1941. It is pretty cool to compare the first and second photos in the set – the first is the fairly famous capture, while the second is of the same people in the Terminal, just from the other side. The angle – with the sun shining in from the windows, illuminating the people and casting long shadows – really made the shot.

 
  
 
  
 
  

Now when I said that the Farm Security Administration photographers endeavored to capture views of American life, I totally meant it. Undoubtedly, the photographers could have spent the entire day wandering around Grand Central, capturing the various people walking in and out of the Terminal and call it a day. But the FSA, they didn’t work that way. Collier went beyond Grand Central and followed some commuters home – snapping photos of them in the bar car, playing cards on the train, or just reading the newspaper. For one particular commuter, an unidentified advertising executive from Westport, Collier captured the man’s breakfast with family, photographed him running out the door to make the 7:40 train, and even snapped the moment he kissed his wife goodbye at the station. The following photos are truly a gem – illustrating not just an American life, but the life of a commuter to Grand Central in the early 1940’s.

  
  
 
   
  

Scant months after the above two sets of photos were taken, the large east windows of the Terminal were completely covered with a massive photo mural paid for by the Treasury and advertising war bonds and stamps. The mural not only used photos from the Farm Security Administration’s collection, but was documented from start to finish by the FSA photographers. Dedicated in December of 1941, the mural was claimed to be the largest photo mural in the world, measuring 96 by 118 feet.

Visible on the mural was the following text:

That government – by the people shall not perish from the Earth. That we may defend the land we love. That these may face a future unafraid. That we may build for a better world. Buy defense bonds and stamps now!


Artists in Washington DC plan the mural to be put up in Grand Central

 
Three of the main FSA photos used in the mural. A total of 22 different Farm Security Administration photos were used.


Scale model of what the mural would look like installed in the Terminal. Note that the text is slightly different than what was actually used.

  
   
  

The adjusted mural in Grand Central
When the mural was originally planned, the United States had not yet entered into World War II. Work for the mural had begun at least three months prior to its installation, though it was dedicated in December – just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At some point, assumedly sometime after the US entered the war, the sign was changed to say “War Bonds” as opposed to “Defense Bonds,” which is visible in this photo (it was hard to read – “war” is written in black, covering over the “defense” written in white).

After the US entered the war, the FSA’s photography unit was reassigned to the Office of War Information, and then a year later, disbanded. Collier remained with the photography project when it was transferred to the OWI before leaving in 1943. His mentor, and fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange opted for a job with the War Relocation Authority. Lange captured hundreds of Japanese Americans as they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, where her depictions of reality were at odds with her employers. In the government’s desire to gloss over the fact that we too operated concentration camps during the war, the photographs were confiscated and only recently uncovered.

The railroads were quite involved in the war effort - through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies
The railroads were quite involved in the war effort – through advertising, and the movement of troops and supplies.

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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Westport


Postcard view of the station, labeled as Saugatuck. This card was postmarked 1915.

Today’s stop on our ongoing tour of the New Haven Line is Westport, a lovely station with a miniature identity crisis. Although Metro-North refers to this station simply as “Westport,” historically it has been called “Westport & Saugatuck.” The old station building that still remains – built around 1880 – also lists the name as “Westport Saugatuck” on the front. However, it seems that many of the locals refer to the station simply as “Saugatuck,” the name of the portion of Westport where the station resides. For consistency’s sake, I’ll use the Metro-North designation of “Westport” hereon.


Old train tickets listing the station name as Westport & Saugatuck

Much of Westport’s charm derives from the lovely station building, which was renovated in 2004. The station still contains the original ticket window, however Metro-North no longer staffs this window and tickets are sold through on-platform TVMs. Besides the obvious waiting-room and bathrooms the station contains, it also has a small book swap shelf, courtesy of the Westport Public Library (this is the second New Haven Line station I’ve featured with a book swap shelf. Redding was the first. I absolutely love the idea). During the aforementioned renovations an additional tunnel under the tracks was installed, with elevator, as to meet ADA guidelines. Though the main station is on the New York/westbound side of the tracks, another station building exists on the opposite side, which is used as a taxi stand and contains a car rental office. This building looks significantly more beat-up, and is covered in a layer of paint that has cracked over the many years.

 
  

1950’s photographs of Westport station


Photo of a 1912 train wreck that occurred near the station.

Westport is a lovely little station, surrounded by an interesting neighborhood, of which residents are extremely proud – despite the many changes over the years. Thanks to the railroad (which first arrived in 1848), getting to Westport station is relatively easy. The station is about 44 miles away from Grand Central, and travel time is about an hour and ten minutes.

 
  
 
 
  
 
   
  
 
   
 
  
 
   

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