All aboard

Train rides chal­lenge Brett Stan­ley’s skill while pro­vid­ing un­lim­ited in­spi­ra­tion

The Photographer's Mail - - Column - Brett Stan­ley

I love trav­el­ling by train. The view shut­ter­ing past is the ul­ti­mate sin­gle-take dolly shot, bet­ter than any movie. Real and gritty.

When driv­ing a car, ev­ery­one’s best face is for­ward. The streets are groomed for the watch­ful eye of pass­ing mo­torists, keep­ing up ap­pear­ances — all trimmed lawns and washed win­dows. But the train! Ah, this is the voyeur’s dream, glid­ing along ef­fort­lessly with a per­sonal view over ev­ery back fence.

Every­body hides from the world here but, by the same to­ken, no­body does.

The rust­ing bikes and the un­mown lawns all tell a story about the oc­cu­pants — tales of mis­placed dreams and long-forgotten goals, of com­pul­sive hoard­ing and poorly timed wash­ing, of cas­tles built with dirt and ill-ad­vised dares.

Th­ese are the things that cap­ture my wan­der­ing mind, es­pe­cially with time to kill on the rails. I’ve been on trains all over the world, from old bangers in In­dia to beau­ti­ful sleep­ers in France and Italy and sub­ur­ban com­muters in New York, Lon­don, and Syd­ney. The only time I’m to­tally bored is when we hit a tun­nel or night falls and the ex­tra-large win­dows trans­form the en­tire car­riage into a hor­ri­ble hall of mir­rors with no es­cape.

Tak­ing photos from the win­dow of a train is a con­test of skill and luck, but also plan­ning — in­volv­ing such things as get­ting a great win­dow seat. You don’t have much warn­ing of sights ap­proach­ing, un­less you’re on one of those won­der­fully nar­rated trips like New Zealand’s North­ern Ex­plorer, when there is a guide who can give you the heads up. With­out this lux­ury, you do need to be at the ready.

I find re­gional trains to be the best, es­pe­cially in the country, as the trains tend to stop for longer, giv­ing you more time to pon­der the un­var­nished tim­bers en­cir­cling the dwellers of the town.

One of my fond­est mem­o­ries of cross­ing In­dia by train was stop­ping at ev­ery sta­tion and hav­ing a ca­coph­ony of wal­las (sellers) board­ing each car­riage to sell hot chai in clay cups. A beau­ti­ful scene, harshly sobered by look­ing out the win­dow and see­ing the chil­dren col­lect­ing the dis­carded cups to wash for re­use from the sewage piped out of the train. Chai never tasted the same.

For a pho­tog­ra­pher, the rail­way pro­vides not just a means of trans­port but a con­stant stream of in­spi­ra­tion. The sights and sounds — and even the smells — of the land­scape are brought right to you, in­vest­ing your mind’s eye with an end­less li­brary of in­spi­ra­tion.

No mat­ter how lost your Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem gets you, un­less you can glimpse over that back fence, the front is al­ways a front, putting the best face for­ward. It’s those open back­yards and those fac­tory build­ings that de­liver the sto­ries that would oth­er­wise never be seen or heard, no mat­ter how many off-ramps or rut­ted country lanes you force your­self down.

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