It starts with a gentle lurch, an easy sway, and a slow build out of the Los Angeles switch yard. The Costal Starlight is making its run up the coast to Seattle again. And there she sits, in a window seat, camera in hand, poised to capture the scenes flickering by as the train rushes over the land.
“I see myself as a speck in the universe,” said Charlottesville-based photographer and artist Stacey Evans. “A passenger traveling through time and space collecting data.”
Evans’ journeys have taken her past dusty crossroads, soaring skylines, forgotten homes, rows of crops, pounding surf, “graveyards full of rusted automobiles,” the American landscape in motion, ever changing, ever refreshed. The photographs collected on such trips serve as a means of documenting and recounting the experience; and it is this work, along with some of Evans’ more recent, experimental efforts, that is featured in “Between Here and There,” on exhibit at WriterHouse through December 31.
In 2010, she received the distinguished Puffin Foundation Grant for her proposal to document America’s landscape from the railway. Using that money and her own resources, Evans traveled the Pacific Surfliner and Costal Starlight route over the course of three days. “It was a fantastic experience,” said Evans. “These routes travel the entire West Coast. The landscape varied greatly from rails hugging the coast to industrial Los Angeles to leafy green fields and oil rigs, from downtown Portland into Seattle. I woke up one morning to the sun rising over Mount Shasta.” Since then, she has arranged half a dozen more trips along the country’s rail system.
In addition to the Coastal Starlight and the Pacific Surfliner, she has traveled on the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief, the Palmetto Line, the Missouri River Rider—names that kindle curiosity and wanderlust.
Indeed, Evans is not the first to find inspiration in trains. America’s railways evoke freedom, change, pride, and disillusionment. Johnny Cash, Jack Kerouac, Jacob Lawrence, Jimmie Rodgers, and Edward Hopper all romanticized the rails.
Evan’s finds her way among these artists in her own fashion, collecting information through the lens of the camera, leaving herself open to the shifting scene flickering beyond the window.
“I’m photographing as I move through space,” said Evans. “I have to decide quickly if it’s worth capturing. Some photographs, I recall a feeling when I push the shutter, I know it is a keeper. Other shots are driven by intuition.” One goal, above all, remains constant. “I’m seeking an unbiased perspective, “Evans said.
Her results are substantial and exciting, an astounding catalogue of thousands of frames, each one unique. Many contain “secrets,” figures or elements not evident at the time of the photograph.
For Evans, taking the photos is only half of the process. When she returns home there’s the task of editing all the photographs down to a select few. “I have thousands of files in my archive,” said Evans. “Every time I open a route folder I revisit the entire journey looking for something new.”
Crucial editing choices are required to sort the virtually infinite combinations of photographs. Deciding what should be shown to the world is the most active part of the process for Evans, and the element over which she exerts the most control.
To that end, the editing for “Between Here and There” is a success, and combined with her photographic framing and artistic sensibility, makes for a strong exhibition. Her images are powerful, evocative photographs of the American landscape from, and with, a moving perspective.
A smaller portion of the exhibition is dedicated to more recent work, a component of Evans’ practice that has been in development over the past few months. These photographs of multimedia maquettes—layers of torn paper, photographs, cast shadows, and drawings—make one feel as though he is looking, with a bird’s eye view, down upon some giant artist’s messy desk. They decidedly refer to a more tactile, hands on, process-oriented mentality. Evans said, “I see this work as means of creating information, as opposed to my [passenger photographs], which are a means of collecting information.”
While WriterHouse serves primarily as a resource for the area’s authors, poets, and essayists, the institution avails its lobby space and adjunct classrooms for visual art exhibitions. Though an undeniably gracious effort—and a thoughtful means to integrate writing with visual arts—the space is not ideal for exhibiting work.
Yet the photographs of Stacey Evans manage to shine through the distractions. It’s the work of a thoughtful, skilled photographer and a patient collection of images from the rails. It’s the work of a passenger.—David Hawkins