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A Time Of Trains

April 2023
1min read

By David Plowden; W. W. Norton & Company; 160 pages.

It’s a fair bet that David Plowden is the only major American photographer ever to have left Yale for a job as assistant to the trainmaster on the Great Northern Railroad in Willmar, Minnesota. But Plowden has always loved trains. His first memory is of seeing a locomotive from the lower berth of a Pullman; the first picture he ever took, at the age of eleven, was of a steam locomotive. One of his teachers, the photographer Minor White, told him that unless he took pictures of his “damned engines and trains” and got them out of his system, he would never photograph anything else. In time Plowden went on to photograph other things; but he never did get trains out of his system, and this magnificent book is his elegy to the vanished era when the railroad was the emblem of our civilization.

Plowden’s fellow cameraman O. Winston Link, whose book of railroad photographs was reviewed in these pages several months ago, used every sort of strobe light and technical trickery. Plowden takes exactly the opposite course, composing his pictures with an artist’s eye but recording their content with the most scrupulous realism. It is a tribute both to his skill and to his subject matter that the results are every bit as romantic and dramatic as Link’s wonderful fustian.

The well-produced pictures range from railroading at its most impressive—a tall-flanked 4-8-4 rounding a grade on the Reading in a fury of steam and smoke—to smaller and more intimate views bequeathed us by the railroad landscapes: the earnest little brick buildings at trackside, the drying laundry in a Vermont backyard glimpsed from a Delaware & Hudson bridge.

Plowden is an accomplished writer, and the book commences with a marvelous account of a midwinter epic in 1955, when, with the usurper diesels failing in the bitter cold, Plowden took a hair-raising ride in the cab of 2505, a thirty-year-old mountain-type, as it pounded toward St. Paul. It was the last run of a steam engine on a Great Northern passenger train. “Almost all the tangibles of that time are gone…,” writes Plowden. “The Great Northern…has become part of the Burlington Northern system. St. Paul Union Station is no longer a station. The Fast Mail and all the passenger trains on the Willmar division are gone, too.

“The 2588 [another steam engine] survived. It is preserved like a stuffed bison behind a chainlink fence next to the station at Havre, Montana. The 2505 fared better, I believe. It has gone to Valhalla.”

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