I really enjoy reading the Railroad Heritage magazine from the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. This quarterly magazine is top quality and features many thought-provoking articles and lots of good information.
The spring 2022 edition featured a tribute to photographer David Plowden, along with an interview with him. I admit that I had no idea who he was until I read this magazine. Once I read the magazine, I immediately checked my local library for books of his and reserved Industrial Landscape, a 1985 book featuring his industrial photography in the Chicago area.
All I can say is… wow. What a photographer.
The book features a seven-page introduction, then 148 pages of black and white photographs. I had to roll my eyes a bit at the introduction – it starts off with some “rah rah America” that this Canadian finds distasteful – but once you get through that, it’s well worth reading.
But the images. Well.
They are technically excellent. Lines are perfectly vertical or horizontal. The images are sharp where they need to be and out of focus where they need to be. They generally have a very strong contrast, with lots of gloomy dark areas and bright sunlit areas. Full marks for technical competency.
However, the book really shines on the way the images are presented. They are “arranged to reflect… that drive from Gary to O’Hare; to mirror the transition from one world to another.”
The lead images show heavy industry. Massive, dark shapes wrapped in smoke and mist, titanic steel structures of infernal purpose.
As you continue through the book, the images gradually change to show less heavy industry and more warehouses, morphing from massive pipe-laden structures adorned with chimneys to plain rectangular boxes with only a window or door to break the monotony. The hard lines of wires, piping and steel beams morph into brick patterns and stacks of printed books and a printed sign on a cinderblock wall.
The final image is especially poignant, “Abandoned grain elevator west of the Loop”, showing a massive decaying concrete elevator viewed from a weed-infested railway yard. It really puts the exclamation point on the story of this book, the story of transition from heavy industry to the digital world.
Plowden’s images tell stories, each one, despite only having a few words for captions, like “Press room” or “Generating station”. Even when showing scenes as banal as a locker room or a vending machine, Plowden shows the utter artificiality of the scenes, all straight hard lines, gleaming painted steel, artificial regularity.
I am definitely going to search out more of his work. I especially want to read Requiem for Steam.