They were once our great-grandfathers’ vision of progress. From their inception and race across the North American continent, to the creation of time zones, and establishing the fraternal structure of the Civil Rights Movement, passenger trains shaped what it means to be American. While the US freight industry operates more than 139,679 miles of track, Amtrak is a skeleton of the passenger service that once connected the county. In Search of Great Mencombines original photography and first-person, passenger-written journals to explore contemporary America through our passenger rail system and those currently traveling by train.
Growing up in a small farming town in North Carolina, I worked summers repairing crossties and track on a 32-mile railroad freight line. I discovered photography as an anthropology student at Davidson College (BA, 2001). Today I travel by 15-day rail passes to make pictures with fellow passengers and passing scenery. Sitting in those 40-year-old cars that need repair and remodeling, I wonder why the United States is willing to fall behind the rest of the world in a realm of transportation so important to our growing urban populations.
The train can be a beautiful way to travel but, for the most part, long-distance trains are used by people trying to get their lives together, find work, or reunite with people they love and hope will love them back. At a time when such travel may soon be only a memory, this show explores that search for something just out of reach and a bit intangible. It is about the desire for change and the possibility of hope fulfilled.
Each trip is the equivalent of an artist residency where I eat, sleep, and live with my subject. Because long distance trains service many small towns between major destinations, passengers and crew circulate constantly. Collaboration is essential, and each passenger writes about their travels, where they are coming from, and where they hope to go.
With an Amish family traveling to Tijuana for medical treatment, a single mother commuting to the North Dakota oil fields, a teenage son hoping to reunite with his father, individual stories are about connection, a desire for something to happen, or a situation to rectify. Collectively, they sketch our nation’s identity and illuminate shared-experiences amidst forces of modernization. Intimate and at times autobiographical, In Search of Great Men explores a search for hope that so defines our national identity.
McNair Evans, Field Sketches
Through December 23, 2016
1599 Tennessee St
San Francisco, CA 94107