Evidence of an Era: An Interview with David Plowden
The very first photograph David Plowden ever took was of a steam engine, when he was just eleven years old. From there, the engines became a lifelong passion, and a recurring theme in his work. Over “a lifetime of riding the rails,” he writes in the introduction to his twentieth book of photographs, “Requiem for Steam,” “the railroad became my tutor and the train window was the lens through which I formed my perception of America.”
Forty-four years earlier, Plowden’s very first book—1966’s “Farewell to Steam”—was an homage to the machines that had so captured his imagination, a bittersweet “farewell” to them not so very long after they went out of commission. The new book gives Plowden a chance to curate these images with a little more distance, and to use them to tell the story of the steam era.
As he documented the decline of the engines, he also found himself drawn to other powerful symbols of American industry, training his lens on bridges, steam boats, and steel mills—and publishing collections of those images, darkly beautiful tributes to parts of our culture he saw slipping away. Over the years, as there have become fewer and fewer of those things to photograph, Plowden’s attention has shifted to landscapes and structures that have the same sort of melancholy out-of-time sense about them. Along the way, the photographer developed a strong intuition about what will be the next to fall. But he never stopped loving his trains.
While his images are windows on to another time, this new “Requiem” is a noble, thoughtful tribute to the past, not a mournful wish to return to it. At 78, Plowden himself is all too conscious of this tension, and is determined to illuminate what’s gone without being bound by it. We spoke recently about what’s changed—and what hasn’t.
You’ve made a career out of photographing things before they disappear. Where does the drive to do that come from?
I started out photographing trains, steam engines. And when the steam engines went, I realized oh my lord, the steam boats are going. The railroad depots are going. Small towns are going, Main Street is going. I did a book on a steel mill because I realized that the steel industry was changing drastically. It’s a terrible expression, but I’ve been one step ahead of the wrecking ball.
For me, it was important to document places that were important to American history and culture. These things are disappearing, and I can’t stop that. But I can certainly photograph them, and leave a record of things that in a hundred years won’t be here. In my lifetime, many of the things I’ve photographed aren’t here anymore. It happens so quickly.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to do that kind of documenting?
I felt it was important for another generation to see what we looked like, and also perhaps to make people aware of what they were losing. And to show how very beautiful some of these places were. We have a very beautiful country, and it’s being devoured. Photography provides a souvenir—it’s a way of holding onto these things, and remembering them.
Your very first book, “Farewell to Steam,” was photographs of steam engines. How is that book different from “Requiem for Steam,” which was just published?
I hate to say this, but “Farewell to Steam” was a disaster. It was badly printed, badly designed—it just was terrible. “Requiem to Steam” is really my way of celebrating the locomotive. It’s not just the engines, it’s the era of the steam engine. And so there are stations, pictures of trains and grain elevators and steel mills, the things the steam engine built. It’s a story of my search for where the steam engines are. I rode one of the last ones ever to be in service.
One of the things that’s most different about this book is that it was entirely produced on the computer. I don’t shoot with a digital camera, I shoot film and then scan it. A lot of the [older] negatives were very badly damaged, stained, in terrible condition. They could not have been printed in the darkroom. So—with a very dear friend of mine who is an expert on the computer—I restored a great many of these negatives so they could be used.
Would you ever have imagined that you’d be able to scan your old negatives into a computer, or that you’d want to?
It took me a long time to come to the computer. I’ve been printing in the darkroom since I was 16. I’m 78, so you can do the math. I printed in the darkroom for years; it was second nature to me. I learned the zone system years ago. Shooting on film and printing in the darkroom has been an integral part of my life. Now I just shoot the film in the field and I don’t go in the darkroom anymore, for many, many reasons—one is that I have fearsome arthritis and its very hard for me to stand all day in the darkroom, and also to use my hands to dodge and burn. I have some frozen paper—they don’t make good photographic paper anymore. But it’s very hard to get anyone to work in a darkroom with you. It used to be that people wanted to work in a darkroom, so they came and worked with me and I tried to teach them as much as I could. But they’re not interested in that anymore. So a lot has conspired to keep me out of the darkroom.
Do you miss it?
Not anymore. The smell of hypo still gets the juices flowing. Years ago it used to be said that photography is not an art because you can use a negative to make prints ad infinitum. Yes, but every print you make in the darkroom is different. They may be subtle differences, but when I’m looking at them they’re enormous differences. Every print that you make in the darkroom is a one-off creation; there are no two prints exactly the same. And you created the work yourself; on the computer you don’t. You work with all the devices in Photoshop, which give you infinite control. In fact, it gives you so much control that you can go overboard.
[Digital imaging] is very different, but it’s my salvation because I don’t have the stamina to work in the darkroom anymore. The computer has given me a new lease on life.
Were you initially resistant to it? A lot of people who were really wedded to darkroom work were a little reluctant to shift to digital. Including me, and I’m young enough that I don’t really have an excuse…
I taught for about thirty years, and I was teaching during the time that the computer and Photoshop came in. So I had this whole upheaval going on while I was teaching students. I would tell them: It’s different. Treat it as another medium, and you won’t have to worry about whether it’s better or worse. It is a wonderful thing and it produces wonderful work, but it will not produce silver prints for you.
I wasn’t really against it, because at the time it really came along full blast, I was awfully tired. So it did indeed free me. And at my age, I really think that it saved my career. Medically, and also everything was deteriorating. It was hard to get pieces for my equipment. I was still using the original enlarger that I bought in 1957. I’m not a guy who runs out and buys the latest thing. I kept the best lenses I could find. The equipment is old, but it’s beautiful. I’m very hard on it. I beat my equipment to death, but before I go out on an expedition I pay a huge bill to have it all repaired.
Since you’re photographing things that are vanishing, and you’re working in a medium that’s so in flux, has that changed how you think about what you do?
Well, I’ve been doing it all my life. It’s become a way of life. Most of the things that I love, that I photograph, aren’t here anymore. So my photography today is not photographing things that are disappearing, but photographing the beautiful landscape.
My career is probably winding down, at my age. I don’t expect to be able to photograph forever. But I have photographed so many of the things I felt were important to record and document before they disappeared. And so many of them have, now.
All the things that I photographed were representative of another time, perhaps of a time I found more interesting. And things like the steam locomotive and the old truss bridges were infinitely fascinating in themselves. Moreover, you could understand how they work. I think for most of us, the technology today is so cerebral. How do you photograph a doctor performing a brain operation? How do you photograph what’s going on in Hawking’s mind? You can’t, really. But you can go out and photograph a bridge.
The inside of a computer is fascinating, but the outside is no more interesting than a breadbox. Whereas some of these old machines, you looked at them and could understand how they worked. And they were fascinating. They were dramatic.
When you look at the photographs you took decades ago of things that were vanishing and have maybe since vanished completely, what do you feel?
Well, I have the photograph, so I have the memory. I look at the photograph and remember what things were like. I’ve never forgotten any photograph I’ve made. And I’ve made a hell of a lot of photographs. But every one is an occasion. I do miss these things, but I say to myself, okay, at least I can look at a picture and there is evidence of that place, of that moment. That gives me great satisfaction.
I guess I’m a realist; I guess I know that I’m not going to change the world. But at least I made the record. Yes, I’m sad. I’m terribly sad that things are becoming so dehumanized. We’re a country that insists on sensation; it feeds on it. Everything must be faster and better. I’m not a Luddite; I’m alive because of medicine and I use cell phones and I use the computer and all of these things. But at the same time, I do lament the loss of some of these things that were beautiful and made life more interesting.
Lots of people wrestle with that tension. It’s easy to get lost in the past and never get beyond it.
That’s a very important point. I’m not in any way that person. I embrace the present very much, but I revere the past. We all walk in the footsteps of our forebearers. Sometimes it seems to me that some of the young people of today think that the past doesn’t matter, that we’ve been spring from the head of Zeus complete. But if you hadn’t had the steam engine, you wouldn’t have the computer. They’re connected, and I don’t think you can separate them.
All images by David Plowden. View many more on his website.
1. Great Northern RLY. Extra 3383 East, Kandiyohi , MN 1955
2. Hostler and CNR Locomotive Number 8403 on Turntable, Hamilton, ON 1959
3. Sanding Locomotive – Denver, Rio Grande & Western RR. Chama, NM 1962
4. CPR Number 2816, 1960
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