Trains, and Automobiles: R.S.V.P. The Romance and Revolution of Transportation
ASHLEY EAST - STAFF WRITER
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art invites you back to a time
when train whistles blew and subways were still a novelty in the urban
world. Twenty-six college faculty and staff were invited to view a selection
of photographs from the Museum's permanent collection, choose one of particular
interest, and respond to that image in 100 words or less. Their responses
form the wall text throughout the exhibition in the Museum's Halford Gallery.
How has transportation changed in recent history, as the result
of revolutions in politics and the economy, redefining class-consciousness
in the modern era? How do these images invoke personal life experiences
and perceptions of that recent history? The Bowdoin College Museum challenges
the viewer to locate a photograph that inspires a historical or personal
memory and quite literally-be moved.
John Vachon's image of the Railroad Men at Lunch inspired
Joe Bandy, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology, in its social
and historical context. He recalls that in1939, the year the photograph
was printed, Grapes of Wrath was published and the United States
suffered the effects of the Great Depression. Germany invaded Poland in
this same year, ushering in WWII and giving new meaning to the phrase
"UNION," as it appears in striking white against the dark background of
the 832 train.
The two figures lunching underneath the looming steam train
appear diminutive in comparison to the means of transport, also the basis
of their economic livelihood. This was a historical moment for the labor
movement and the relationship of the men to that formidable machine, and
the power of this black and white image, reminds the viewer of the events
of that pivotal year. Both personal and historical memories are invoked
in Alfred Stieglitz's The Hand of Man. One of the Museum Security
Guards, Jaime Reatiraza, recalls his fascination with trains while growing
up in the Philippines:
"As a young boy, I remember when I first saw this machine
at a far distance. She was lumbering slowly at the curve looking like
a centipede. Passing through the open rice fields where our village was
located, I could see it belching gray smoke as it unleashed its eerie
whistle. For us young kids we were fascinated and hypnotized by the awesome
machine. It became part of our life."
The black and white train, among the series of tracks with
billowing black smoke, elicited a different response from Visiting Assistant
Professor of Psychology, Scott Staples:"Bursting forth like an ancient,
angry god, blackening the sky it holds all within its sway. Power without
grace, without redemption, even the great earth must submit and be imprisoned
by the technological titan."
Is the train a game or a god? A childhood memory invoking
intrigue of the great beyond, or a supernatural technological force polluting
the natural world? Come decide for yourself.
The relationship of man to more modern forms of transportation
continues to strike a social cord. Rachel Connelly, Associate Professor
of Economics and Director of Women's Studies selected Danny Lyon's 1979
print entitled IRT2, South Bronx, NYC, a black and white image of a crowded
subway train. The inside shell is covered in graffiti and each one of
the sitters appears to be unaware of the presence of the photographer.
Professor Connelly is interested in the role of the commuter
rail in the reduction of worker inequality, understanding the economic
importance of fast and inexpensive public transportation for many minority
employees. The people on this subway train do not interact with one another,
and one man reads a Mexican newspaper.
Though public transportation should serve as a way of reducing
class barriers, the high filter used to create the black and white contrast
in this photograph, the white woman staring out the window bathed in light,
further highlights the social stratification prevalent in 20th century
The invention of the automobile also changed our perceptions
of history and memory. Genevieve LeMoine, Curator of the Perry Mac-Millan
Arctic Museum, speaks of photography as an artistic media:
"A photograph records experiences that happen in the blink
of an eye, but comes to stand for much more than the instant it preserves.
In this picture I can feel the thrill of speeding along a narrow road
at night and the trusting comfort of a small child safe in the warmth
of the carů
In her choice of the blurred Thomas Zetterstrom print entitled
Night Drive, the viewer is allowed inside of the vehicle, aware
of the fast speed and the dark road filled with trees, cut by the headlights
of the car. The hood of the car forms a shadowy diagonal slant, perhaps
merely a nighttime ghost or trick of the light. Emphasis is on the power
of motion and the sense of invincibility one so often feels when speeding
through the night in a steel-framed automobile."
Kidder Smith, Program Director of Asian Studies, presents
a different interpretation of automotive transportation, emphasizing its
destructive capabilities. In his selection of Garry Winogrand's Utah,
the viewer once again locates himself inside of the vehicle, this time
faced with the formidable obstacle of a lumbering animal straight ahead,
as seen through the smattered windshield.
The driver is unable to stop or react, propelled forward by
this evil machine. Professor Smith's last line serves as a fleeting after-thought
when faced with one's own mortality: "My wife was sleeping in the backseat."
This response reflects on the greater power of technology to destroy the
innocent- whether the environment or human life.
R.S.V.P. is a striking exhibition, allowing the audience to
see how members of the Bowdoin community interpret art, be it historically
or personally, impacted by different time periods and memories throughout
the past century.
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art invites you to experience
these works for yourself, choose one that moves you and formulate your
own response in 100 words or less. Which of these photographs moves you?
Until January 2001, come find out.