Vistascreen Series 25 “Locomotives”
So last Sunday I woke up in the early afternoon, having stayed up late to post my final Netherlands adventure, to a “one week warning” on my phone that I’d set up months ago. Although I’d been working for days on a post about amateur Great War stereography, I had to drop it temporarily. Something more immediate loomed. I spent the last several days scanning and prepping 80 images for a massive double-post on Sunday. And these are not images of puppies, circus clowns, or quaint little villages. Play mathematician for a moment – this Sunday is 1 September, and I scanned 80 images – yikes! So my brain needs a break. Specifically, my brain needs VistaScreen Series 25 “Locomotives”.
Trains are awesome.
What every-so-slightly nerdy adult wasn’t once a young human being fascinated by trains? Don’t claim that you weren’t, because you damn well were. Trains are awesome! My best friend Pookie (requiescat in pace) and I used to ride our bikes down to an abandoned bridge at Lyndon Road, which crossed both the Erie Canal and a pair of commercial railroad tracks. We didn’t even have cool steam locomotives to watch – in fact, most of the trains were boring CSX cars, empty hoppers, and the like. But it didn’t matter to us – the tracks would start to rattle, and we’d hear the whistle in the distance.
Soon the train would be there and gone, leaving us behind with a giddy feeling, and our latest cache of smooshed pennies. As we got older, we played hooky from high school to go back to that same old bridge, though often with less innocent intentions. Nevertheless, when a train came, we always paused to admire it, often singing badly off-key renditions of an Arlo Guthrie classic: “And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel…” Trains were certainly magical to us.
And in all honestly, they’ll always be magical to me. There’s a romantic notion attached to the rail that simply doesn’t transfer to other modern means of transportation. There’s nothing sexy about waiting on queue at JFK. Boats are fun in the context of The Lonely Island, and rather boring in reality. And don’t get me started on cars – I live in New York. But the Iron Horse; the golden spike in the Transcontinental Railroad; riding on a car pushed by a Shay locomotive on the Cass Scenic Railroad for my 37th birthday… there’s magic there.
Trains are photogenic.
A counterpoint to Douglas Adam’s assertion that “airports are ugly” could simply be stated as “sure, but locomotives are pretty”. Trains have existed for the entire lifespan of photography, and have always proven a worthy subject. Personally, one of my photographic heroes is O. Winston Link. He captured the last steam railroad in America, the Norfolk & Western. And he did it at night – often with complex arrays of as many as 50 flashbulbs wired in series. One shot was all he got – and he usually got his shot!
But less amazing photography of trains can still be fantastic. Before its shutdown, the Google+ social networking site had a very active railfan community. From the most basic amateur work to some masterful shots from artists like Gene Bowker, everybody had something interesting to offer. Even a technically poor image of a 1920s postal car, or a rare coal-fired steam locomotive is pleasing to the eye. And the reasoning is simple – trains, especially older ones – are pleasing to the eye.
Stanley Long photographed trains.
Stanley Long knew that any rail photography would appeal to the viewer, in much the same way that any nude images would sell. Some people like looking at nude figures; some like looking at locomotives. (I’d argue that most people probably enjoy both, but are more likely to admit one than the other.) So Long shot nudes for VistaScreen. And much earlier than that, amongst the initial 20 offerings, he shot Series 25 “Locomotives”.
Long was no Link, nor did he pretend to be. Still, these are pretty great stereoviews. There’s no pretense to high-art here; this series views like the typologies of the Bechers, without the high aspirations. Each stereoview presents a different locomotive from the same basic position; in this way, the viewer can compare and contrast the various engines. I have three copies of this set – two of the original black-box series, and one of the red-box Junior series. This tells you how popular the series was – I don’t acquire duplicates of sets unless they happen to be included in a large lot of VistaScreen that I happen to be buying.
But this is probably in the top 10 as far as VistaScreen series seen in the wild goes – meaning they produced a lot of them. Which makes perfect sense. 9-year-old bike-riding me would have bought this series, as would 17-year-old school-dodging-hooligan me. As it turns out, I found this set in my 30s, whilst trying to complete Series 46 “The Circus”. And this series just spurred on my growing interest in this weird little stereographic outfit. So while I’m feeling the tracks rumbling for the somewhat damnable remembrance of history that’s coming on Sunday, let’s just don our anoraks, kick back, and enjoy some locomotives.