Posted by: facetothewind | July 12, 2011

On the Rails Again

One of the things I’ve taught myself over the 35 years of taking pictures is to see with an “involuntary eye.” What I mean by this is, well, it’s something akin to Proust’s “involuntary memory.” If I am not particularly wowed by the photographic circumstance, then I simply sit almost in a meditative state but with my eyes open. I just sit and wait, and eventually a photograph will reveal itself. Today on my 15 hour train ride from San Francisco to Portland, I was a bit bored by trying to capture the outside beauty of nature through the windows — it simply wasn’t happening with all the reflections and kids’ greasy fingerprints on the windows and the blur of the train. Besides, everyone’s already done it all.

So I thought OK, what’s unique about this moment? Clearly, the people. What is it about Amtrak, about the train experience? I sat in a chair for over an hour just watching peole come and go and scenery whizzing by. Eventually the right person sat down, her blouse excited me and the kid and mother in the background filled it all in. Snap. I captured the moment. And here are a couple more with a little less character and shot more from a voluntary eye, meaning I went looking for it.

I am still trying to figure out why I’m so mesmerized by trains. There’s a long list of reasons, actually. One is the sheer smoothness of gliding along through the backwoods and wilderness of America. Perhaps another is that trains in America run through the backsides of towns, the places that people and time have forgotten. Nothing is geared to attract the gaze of the rail rider. And so it seems something special to me in it’s unspecialness. No McDonald’s arches, no Taco Bells, no billboards. And maybe it’s the environmental, proletarian aspect of it that feels good — just being an average Joe choosing the cheapest and slowest way to travel in a world that is bent of speed and status. Another for sure is that there are no old airports and they have to be on the edge of town. Trains often have beautiful old terminals right in the downtown and so this is where I departed for Portland (from downtown San Francisco). OK, I had to take a bus over the bridge before getting on the train. SF is a peninsula, after all.

Whatever the reason to love train travel, it felt good to be back on the rails. And this time, in spite of Sebastian’s absence, I wasn’t melancholy. I think I’ve reclaimed Amtrak from the melancholic wasteland that it had fallen into after Sebby left. I didn’t cry once this trip.

Mt. McLoughlin in the Cascades…

I’m safely in Portland now. More on that another time. Must get to bed after sleeping in a chair all night.



  1. Gorgeous, David! Involuntary or not, they are absolutely lovely images.

  2. Beautiful pictures, David, and a beautiful meditation.

  3. Poetic from start to finish, David, cool counterpart to our Tucson heat. au revoir…

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