Thursday, April 06, 2006

David Plowden

One of my favorite photographers is David Plowden, who has been exposing 2-1/4 inch square B&W negatives for about half a century. A love of trains, particularly steam locomotives, is what first made Plowden pick up a camera. Once the steam locomotives were gone from North America, he largely stopped photographing trains, but he by no means stopped photographing. He turned his attention instead to all things America, particularly where ever the hand of man was at work. From the steelmills of Gary, Indiana to the grain elevators of eastern Washington to small towns across the country, Plowden has created an artistic documentation of American life, often of the vanishing variety. His square-format photos use simple, straight-forward compositions emphasizing lines and patterns to convey powerful messages, sometimes of what is there, sometimes of what isn't. I've been thinking a lot about his photos recently as I've been trying to photograph the industrial landscape of Muroran and the small towns of Hokkaido.

Though in his seventies, Plowden's work is by no means finished. His latest book, A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America, is due out next month. Check out his website,, for more information and to see some of his photos.

Plowden was also a man who knew when to put the camera down. He did just that on a night in the late 1950s while riding in the cab of one of the last steam-powered trains on the Great Northern Railway. His recollection of that night ride, published in the introduction to A Time of Trains, is one of my favorite pieces of railroad writing.

"Out on the prairie in the night, all the way to the outskirts of Minneapolis, the world was ours. The night, the stars, the 2505, the whistle and Brown were all that mattered. We were The Fast Mail, The Midnight Special, and all those night trains whose whistles stir the imaginations of those who hear their incantations."

1 comment:

George Hamlin said...

Agree with your assessment of Plowden's account of his GN cab ride in "A Time of Trains". One of the finest pieces of rail writing anywhere, IMO.
George Hamlin