Friday, October 12, 2007

Train Station, Parts 1 & 2

Part 1, Renesselaer:
[Above] Train Station in Fog, Renesselear, New York

I captured this image of the Renesselaer train station over the course of a week in the winter of 2006. The days had been mild and wet for upstate New York in December. As the nights cooled and then warmed, a dense curtain of fog would descend on the city. This weather pattern lasted for almost before winter's trademark flooded into upstate. Out every morning at 4.30am, I wanted to make the most of the warm weather and abandoned streets. In total, I spent five mornings at the station in order to achieve the perfect lighting and composition. During that time, I developed a friendly rapport with the workers at the small coffee stand inside the main entrance. I became known as the “the guy with the tripod.” They thought I was press, and for reasons of accessibility, I never corrected their misconceptions. After shooting for the day, I would sit at the round, metal tables of the café and answer emails while backing up the morning’s images onto my laptop. Watching the morning’s commuters grew into a welcomed diversion. The following are the notes from that week:

Heavy rain falls and settles into the low spots. The imperfections in surface are impossible to hide as water finds entry into everything, through expansion joints, through the sills of the portico, in the zippers of a backpack. Tempted by gravity, from thousands of feet up, water molecules gather and barrel earthward seeking out the exposed patch of skin on the back of your neck. The cold water continues downward before being absorbed by your shirt collar. What a way to start a Friday. The weather makes everything feel heavy and uncomfortable.

I sit in the train station and watch people with bags pass by. Urgency and velocities vary, but they are all headed somewhere. Some for pleasure, others for profit. The lucky few are able to combine the two.

The interior of the station is darker than usual and the rain adds to the weight of travel on the last day of the week. A woman walks by pulling a suitcase on wheels. She thinks to herself about getting out of the city tonight. It is going to be hell. A Friday afternoon rush hour is like a full moon. It drives them crazy. Makes sane, rational people do things they won’t describe to anyone. The pent up energy of the workweek is expelled with nowhere to go. Like a ricochet, it bounces off the interiors of cabs, cars, trains, and subways like the bullets in cartoons.

I take it all in.

If I were catching a train south, I could never be this tranquil, but today is like any other day for me. There is a café anchored to the east end of the station. I listen to conversations and try review the morning’s images. The manager loves gay club music. The sounds of Cher, Animotion, and the Pet Shop Boys echo through the marble veneered interior, probably making it as far as the boarding platform before losing momentum. There is something slightly obscene about so much synthesizer at this hour. The music is a constant source of tension between the Amtrak conductors and the café staff. One wants silence, the other, diversion. Thinly veiled insults are passed back and forth. No one ever wins but neither side takes the conflict that far. The café has the coffee and at this hour, no one wants to alienate the only source of caffeine.

I imagine back-stories about the people rushing in from the rain.

A woman and a boy walk in and sit at the table next to mine. The boy has no left ear, only a scar. I wonder how many fights that will get him into when he gets a bit older. They sit for less than a minute and then leave. They walk in an irregular arc through the station trying to figure out where to go. Travel is disorienting. All the stories here are temporary.

A man walks in wearing a backpack with a yellow rain fly. He is dressed in shorts and a Gore-tex shell. In a sea of gray suits and black trench coats, the yellow rain fly stands out like a flower growing in concrete. As I watch him disappear around the corner that leads to the departure deck, I feel the clock close in. Time for me to start my day. I had forgotten the joys of people watching and that is a necessary skill for a professional photographer.

Part 2, Poughkeepsie:

[Left] Woman with Monocle
Poughkeepsie Train Station, Poughkeepsie, New York

I love the feeling of train stations at night. The empty parking lots under cones of light are no different, and just as beautiful, as a dark lake under a blanket of stars. At regular intervals, trains appear out of the darkness, heading north out of New York City. You can hear them coming, like a monster in the ink. But the brute, angry, sound of an air horn doesn’t fit their elegance. Internal cabin lights skirt along the edge of the Hudson and dance more gracefully than they ever could under the harsh analysis on the daylight. From the far shore of the river, trains travel like mercury poured over black velvet. From the distance beyond their sound, they are nothing more than light traveling north. The night hides the small details and allows for romantic generalizations in much the same way black and white movies seem more distant and sublimely mysterious than vivid color. The color is too close to real life, and aren’t we all in some way looking for a life less ordinary? If even for an instant?

A train station suggests possibility in much the same way a map represents escape. The final part of the equation is intent. You can see it in the faces of the people getting off of the train from Grand Central. Stepping off into the night, their shoes still carry the dirt of New York City in the grooves of rubber soles. People in the midst of travel have purpose and momentum.

At this time of night, the interior of the Poughkeepsie train station feels almost sacred. The massive interior chamber is dimly lit and the air is heavy. As quiet as a library and as empty as a church, the hardwood benches look like pews bolted to the floor at odd angles. The giant chandelier is crown of jewels that is long past its prime. The last remaining artifacts of a broke down empire. Everything is covered in the film of overuse. Scuffs and gouges cover the floor from years of traffic. Frames around the ticket counter have been painted and repainted countless times giving them the rough and pocked texture of commercial fishing vessel fighting the corrosion of the Atlantic. In contrast, the marble countertops and railings have been worn smooth by millions of fingers and elbows. Through their overuse, the details of the station are becoming timeless in the way that is easy to understand and hard to describe. They are details that are the targets of complaints, but will be missed when replaced with prefabricated glass and aluminum. They won’t be missed until they are gone. And then they will be mourned.

It is easy to envision this station as the jewel it once was in the time when trains were the only method of long distance travel. We lost something as a culture when we each bought a car. 18 miles away, the interstate cuts a science fiction, sterile, and untouched path from north to south. The thruway has no crowing jewels to invent stories about. Concrete no-where’s and automated toll booths don’t provide the same sort of escapism. They are constructed of the vivid color that can be so ugly. As a collective, we are no longer inspired by the subtle. Disposable glass and brick façade restaurants anchored by oversized gas stations and enormous bathroom facilities offer the only refuge from the 75 mile per hour rhythm of the Thruway, but offer something less to the imagination.

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