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Edition #79, June 1, 2008
Photographer: Dory Adams
Photo by Dory Adams
Marriage is a series of lessons learned. One of the earliest lessons is usually not to make assumptions. When the spouses are photographers and writers, that lesson carries into their creative lives. For example, a husband should never assume that the roll of Kodachrome on top of the dresser is a new roll because it may, in fact, be a partially exposed roll that his wife has rewound from her camera, leaving the tail out so that she could reload and finish the roll later. Otherwise, he may be a tad surprised to find his train shots double-exposed over the waves at Redondo Beach as though it were a Southern Pacific sea train to Hawaii. That example is a little dated now that we’ve entered the digital age and a roll of Kodachrome has pretty much gone the way of sheet film and film holders, but if I still had those images I’d share one with you on this page. It was one of our first collaborations.
Early on, I learned that the stories behind my photographs were often better than the photographs themselves. I was always disappointed in the resulting images, which usually fell short of what I was trying to accomplish. The shots that lived on in my memory were often the shots that I didn’t quite get, the story having a longer life than the resulting negative or slide. It’s much easier to tell a story because you can tell it in more than one word, from more than one angle, while a photograph has to be able to show a story in a single frame.
Some lessons I learned early on in my marriage to a railroad photographer: (1) most weekend drives end up in places where there just happens to be a railroad; (2) a “little walk up the track” usually means several miles, sometimes through deep snowdrifts, sometime through briers and brambles; (3) always carry a paperback book with you for those long waits; (4) never ever drink more than one cup of coffee in the morning because it’s a lot harder for females to find a spot to empty their bladders.
The best lesson in marriage is seeing the world through another person’s eyes. By joining my husband on his shoots, I saw places and things I would not have otherwise experienced: the sound of engines slowly climbing Donner Mountain before finally seeing them emerge through the snow sheds at Donner Pass; watching the afternoon sun move across the American River Canyon while waiting for a train; seeing hoboes board a freight as it approached Keddie Wye in Feather River Canyon; watching the Daylight 4449 roll past the abandoned Garden Queen paddlewheel riverboat moored beside the tracks at the Carquinez Straits; sharing a bench outside the Truckee Station on a balmy summer night while watching a brakeman cut loose a few cars before changing crews; photographing hobo Fry Pan Jack as he joined the crowd watching the Daylight 4449 in Dunsmuir, CA; waiting in a frost-covered field near a trestle somewhere I can’t even remember the name of while we set up for a gorgeous shot, which lacked only the train that never came as we watched the scene slowly drift into shadow as the sun moved low in the sky; following the South Shore commuter train along the Indiana Dunes and into South Bend; standing shoulder-to-shoulder with railfans atop a small hilltop to photograph a steam train leaving Chicago (including a group of last minute arrivals who brought their own ladder to use as a shooting platform above the crowd), then following that same steam train through flat fields and getting to hear the chuff-chuff of the Norfolk & Western 611 engine starting again after it made an unscheduled stop in a field near Sterling, IL; crossing Lake Michigan on the Chessie car ferry after watching the crew load railcars in Ludington, MI and then watching deckhands maneuver the docking at Kewaunee, WI.
Through shared visions, I also fell in love with places I never expected to, such as the mountains and hollows of West Virginia. And I rediscovered things in the very place I’d grown up, such as the East Broad Top Railroad, walking the very same stretch of track between Three Springs and Saltillo with my husband that I’d walked decades earlier with my grandfather. The track was rustier and trees had grown up between the abandoned tracks, but the garter snakes were still there to warm themselves on the warm rails.
We’ve reached a good place in our shared visions, collaborating on projects that marry words and images. My favorite days are the days we work side by side, whether it’s at our desks in our shared study at home or at a remote location that’s not even on the map. Standing beside my husband as we photograph, I know he’ll always get the better shot. But I’ll always get the better story, because in my writer’s imagination I can make the train appear in a scene at the exact right moment. And best of all, I can even control the slant of the sunlight.
Dory Adams is a Pittsburgh-based writer. Winner of the 2002 William Faulkner Award for Short Fiction, her work has appeared in The Avery Anthology, Blue Earth Review, Hobart, Slipstream, The Oklahoma Review, Common Ground Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Workers Write! Tales from the Clinic, and Forge. She earned her MFA at Vermont College. Dory is the fiction editor at Paper Street and the co-founder of Paper Street Press. She is currently collaborating on a book project (titled “Railroad Ties: Stories from West Virginia”) with fiction writers from West Virginia and photographers Kevin Scanlon and Scott Lothes.
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