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  • Iconography

    Can Gulls be icons? What about Mt. Baker towering in the background of this shot, as Burlington Northern & Santa Fe train 111 (Everelt, Wash.-Brooklyn, Ore., Freight) bears down on milepost 18 just before sunset at Edmonds on February 15, 1996?
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 68 RailNews - March 1997 - Page 69

    Text and Photography by Ben Bachman

    RIGHT: Burlington Northern & Sante Fe thrusts through Edmonds, Wash., at milepost 18, as a "K" Line container ship heads back to Japan. BELOW: On Feb.2, 1996, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe train 16 (Seattle-Chicago intermodal) passes by the Edmonds ferry dock.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 70

    I HAD AN EPIPHANY OF SORTS one sharp, clear morning in Edmonds last February. It began a little bit past nine o'clock when the eastbound CTC signal on the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe main line lit up. Then my scanner emitted a burst of static. Train 16 (Seattle to Chicago inter-modal) was coming. I could hear its engineer checking in with the foreman in charge of a track bulletin about four miles away. I grabbed the camera, locked the car, and set out to position myself for a shot I had already envisioned.

    But as I walked up the street, a coin-operated SEATTLE TIMES newspaper box caught my attention. I'm not sure why. I have probably gone by this spot 50 times without so much as a sideways glance. But this time I stopped and took a closer look, my gaze zeroing in on the image of the Space Needle on the side of the box.

    Hmm....

    Could this work in a picture? I set the zoom at 35mm (as wide as it goes), squatted down for a low angle, and peered through the viewfinder. It didn't strike me as the perfect composition, but few pictures do. I decided to go for it. Three minutes later the crossing lights started to blink, and four SD40-2s came rumbling along the waterfront.

    The "newspaper box shot" is definitely not the most spectacular photo op at Edmonds, but I like the strong regional association. Few structures symbolize the Seattle/Puget Sound area more powerfully than the Space Needle. Actually, none do, which is why a prominent newspaper like the TIMES uses it as an icon. Similar reasoning doubtless went into the selection of the other icons on the side of the box-the sawblade fringe of Douglas firs, the waters of Puget Sound, and Mt. Rainier. Northwesterners will recognize them immediately. Ditto for the Washington State ferry visible in the background of my shot. It is a potent regional icon in its own right.

    So, as far as train-watchers are concerned, are the BSF diesels.

    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 71

    I suppose that on a number of levels I have always been aware of the power of icons-who isn't?-but it really hit me that morning at Edmonds. Put simply, icons are much more densely packed with meaning and emotion than ordinary objects. They are indispensable to governments, advertising agencies, corporations, and anyone else who wants to appeal to the public. Among railroads icons abound; the Jersey Central incorporated the Statue of Liberty into its herald; the Great Northern used a mountain goat; Boston & Maine had the Minute man, and Baltimore & Ohio made the Capital dome its own. Santa Fe created the iconographic Chico as an all purpose advertising tool. Northern Pacific featured a whole host of Northwest icons on one classic travel poster after another. Forty or fifty years ago, however, most Americans would not have thought to call these things icons. If you looked up "icon" in a dictionary, you would have found this definition:

    icon: n: IMAGE; esp: a religious image painted on a small wood panel.

    Today the word has acquired a much broader secular meaning, at least in part because it has been widely adopted as a computer term. Anyone who knows the difference between a floppy disk and a modem has "clicked on an icon" thousands of times. The thesaurus in Microsoft Word Version 7.0 offers the following synonyms for icon: sign, symbol, simile, image, representation, idol, and picture. In addition, popular culture routinely grants icon status to individuals during their lifetimes, typically actors and sports figures.

    RIGHT:Burlington Northern SD40-2 No. 7123 rolls southward along the old Seattle waterfront on Alaskan Way. BELOW RIGHT: One of the Pacific Northwest's most majestic icons-Mt. Rainier-looms on the horizon as a Union Pacific stack train barrels through File, Wash., on Dec. 30, 1994. /caption>
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 72

    Yet an icon still has to stand for something. It has to evoke strong feelings. And it has to resonate. Objects, images, and individuals do not become icons until the public is ready to embrace them. Sometimes this happens quickly, as with the 1957 Chevy convertible; and sometimes, as with my father's Nash Rambler-the ugly white duckling that made me cringe every time I saw it-iconhood" only comes much, much later. Nobody really understands how the process works. If he or she did, icons would be a dime a dozen.

    VIRTUALLY EVERY STEAM locomotive restored to operable condition in the 1980s became an icon. Rare diesels have achieved iconhood as well, as have all diesels in Santa Fe Warbonnet dress. Cabooses are now icons, and so are interlocking towers, along with many well-known depots. The few remaining semaphore signals in the United States have long since attained icon status.

    Train-watchers devote thousands of rolls of film to such things. We flock to Horseshoe Curve, Hoosac Tunnel, the Tehachapi Loops and all the other hallowed places. Yet when it comes to non-railroad icons, we are much less industrious. Oh, if the chance comes along to liven up a routine l-was-there photo with a local landmark of some kind, fine, but only if it's not too much trouble. And it usually is, if the photographs in railroad magazines are any indication. Try leafing though a stack of back issues some time. It's amazing. Forget about icons-most of the shots have no particular geographic reference at all. Without the aid of captions, it is often difficult to tell whether a particular picture has been taken in California, Mississippi, New Jersey, or North Dakota.

    Could it be possible that photographers make a deliberate effort to keep geographic clues out of their pictures? Perhaps not consciously, but at some level, I do think that most of us want to create a "pure" visual environment. If there are some old tires along the track, we edit them out. Soda cans get kicked off into the weeds. Papers are picked up. Most of us have remarkably stringent standards when it comes to what is and what is not appropriate in a photograph. What, after all, do a lot of unnecessary distractions accomplish? A telephone pole that appears to sprout directIy out of the cab of a diesel looks inane. We are interested in trains. Geography, scenery, nature, art, and social commentary are all secondary concerns. They usually don't even show up on the radar screen.

    On Nov. 1, 1995, a Burlington Northern freight passes irrigation equipment as it meanders down the south side of Providence Hill between Beatrice and Cunningham. The temperature was 14F, as indicated by the Beatrice detector.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 73

    The ultimate manifestation of this mindset is the so-called "publicity shot," named for its resemblance to the sanitized, unblemished, unprovocative kind of photograph that a rail-road's publicity department might come up with. Notice how uncluttered everything is. There are no distractions here. There are no surprises at all. The whole world looks as if it has been airbrushed. In an actual railroad publicity shot, the background (or even the train itself) often was airbrushed.

    However, this desire to create what amounts to an alternate reality is by no means confined to railroading. Turn on the tube and watch a few commercials. Car advertisements are particularly instructive. Not only are there no empty beer cans or crumpled up hamburger wrappers by the side of the road, there are no unmanicured lawns, weedy flower beds, potholed parking lots, dilapidated houses, or tacky little strip malls. Everything is perfect, in a white-picket-fence, Norman Rockwell kind of way.

    Are there any icons in TV Land? Of course there are. A car commercial is an ideal realm for iconography. Icons exist several levels above mundane, day-to day reality-and the makers of television commercials manipulate them masterfully. Interestingly, trains are one of the icons now used with increasing frequency, apparently based on the theory that they symbolize solid, traditional values. However, I am not suggesting for a single second that railroad photographers hold up commercials as aesthetic inspiration. The cynical, self-serving dishonesty of the hard sell is poisonous. Nevertheless, commercial makers are consummate professionals working in an incredibly competitive environment. In a 30-second TV spot, every nuance is weighed, measured, considered, debated, and reconsidered. Surely we can learn something from that kind of attention to detail.

    At the very least, television production values are enviable. If a director wants to tap into the incredibly evocative, iconographic scenery of, say, Monument Valley, he or she doesn't have to be content with showing a few rock formations in the background. Instead, the car can be airlifted to the top of the most spectacular sandstone needle in sight. We obviously cannot do that with an SD40-2 (even if for some strange reason we wanted to), but wouldn't it be fantastic to have an ad agency-sized film budget? Or a helicopter or two at our command?

    Actually, a humble cherry picker on the back of a truck would be pretty nice.

    Think of the control that big-budget directors have over their subject matter! They cannot make the sun come out on cue, but almost anything else is possible. When a car coming down the road is needed, the vehicle appears at exactly the right moment. If something spoils the shot, no problem. They just do it again. If need be, they can do it 30 times again.

    BELOW: On Oct. 17, 1995, train 16 (Seattle-Chicago intermodal) lunges through Columbia River siding. This shot isn't as contrived as it seems. That Great Northern mountain goat mug in the car is always there.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 74

    Railroad photographers, on the other hand, endure multiple constraints. Our best efforts and most meticulously laid plans can be wiped out in an instant of bad luck-and an equivalent opportunity may not come up again for months. However, this gives railroad photographs authenticity.

    JUST AFTER DAYBREAK ON Nov. 1, 1995, I sighted the first of 10 westbound freights I would observe between 7:50 a.m. and 1:40 p.m. on the BNSF Lakeside Sub (the former Northern Pacific route from Spokane to Pasco) near Lind, Wash., and followed it up Providence Hill, soon forging ahead. The country side here-dry, dusty coulees and channeled scablands now almost completely given over to vast wheat fields-is awesomely spacious, but difficult to photograph. Most pictures fail to convey the scale and the grandeur and end up looking drab. Thus, it adds interest if you can include a dramatic sky, or lacking that, put some sort of recognizable object in the foreground. As I drove along a minute or two ahead of the train, looking for my next shot, I came up over a rise and spotted a center-pivot irrigation rig, right beside the road. Perfect. I stopped the car, hopped out, and used the elevated pipe to frame the freight, rolling downgrade through the frosty fields.

    Looking at that photo now, I like the way it brings back the memory of that sharp, 14F morning, but I find myself wondering whether something as ubiquitous and utilitarian as irrigation equipment can be an icon. I mean, the Space Needle has plenty of imitators, but is still a one-of-a-kind object. You can see irrigation equipment everywhere. When I was a teenager, I had a job working with irrigation equipment in fields much like these-desert potato fields over in Idaho-and it was a grueling, monotonous ordeal. With the summer heat pounding me into the ground, icons were the last thing on my mind.

    I understand now, of course, that water is a tremendously valuable resource in the West-perhaps the most precious-and with the possible exception of the big dams on the Columbia, irrigation equipment is its most visible manifestation. So how could it not be an icon?

    It is also legitimate to ask what the difference is between icons and scenery. Mt. Rainier is clearly both a piece of magnificent scenery and a Northwest icon. In contrast, those rolling wheat fields along the Lakeside Sub might or night not qualify as scenic (I happen to love them), but they don't have much force as icons. Even way over here on the dry side of the Cascades, where you see a tree every 20 miles or so, pickup-truck mudflaps read "Washington, the Evergreen State." On the other hand, the wheat itself is something we all identify with. Think of the phrase "amber waves of grain." The recently formed Palouse River Railroad, one of eastern Washington's newer short lines, has painted a stalk of wheat on the side of its diesels.

    A pair of SD40-2s ushers empty grain train G27 (In terbay, Seattle, Wash. Sioux City, Iowa) though Columbia River siding. This area's awe-inspiring topography is iconic.
    RailNews - March 1997 - Page 75

    Or take Puget Sound. When it appears on the side of a newspaper box like the one in Edmonds, it definitely has iconographic value-but only because we know that it is Puget Sound. Unadorned with supplementary icons, a photo of the sound looks like any other body of water. You have to include a Washington State ferry, an orca whale, or a Burlington Northern SD40-2 to make it work. The most iconographic scenery in the United States is Monument Valley. At least it is now. It always was a spectacular place-God made it that way-but until the great director John Ford came along with his cameras, almost no one except a few Mormon settlers and Navajo sheep herders knew much about it. Yet Ford somehow sensed that the valley's sun scorched sandstone buttes and arches were perfectly suited to the larger-than-life, mythic heroism he wanted to put on the silver screen. His was a stroke of genius.

    BUT THE SUCCESSFUL USE of iconography does not require talent like John Ford's-and if there was ever a good time to make the effort, it is now. Think about it. The railroad world is homogenizing. Forty years ago, when we could pick and choose from a full range of transcontinentals, regionals, and short lines, simply showing a railroad name in a photograph created a strong sense of regional identity. That is not true anymore. The West is now dominated by two railroad companies. Two! A photographer can hop in his or her car, drive all day and take a bunch of pictures that look exactly like the ones he or she might have collected at home.

    Of course, we won't stay home."Have camera, will travel" has been the credo of train-watchers since the end of World War II gas rationing. Still, why not make your photographs as interesting as possible? Although not the complete answer, iconography is an effective, technique. What do you have to lose?

    Article Details

    • Original Author Ben Bachman
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date March 1997

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