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