THE MIDDLE OF WHATWHERE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVEN THOSE AREAS OF THE WORLD WE ‘VE NEVER SET FOOT IN have, at least in our mind’s eye, a sense of place. Hearing about far-flung cities and towns in remembrances, histories, or novels, we tend to assign some kind of visual structure to their streets and sites. Our brains choreograph where the town hall is, what the schoolhouse looks like, maybe even the look of the setting sun on the sides of buildings. We see the unseen with very clear eyes.
For that reason, I love making images of towns that offer no clear clue as to their location or even era. I feel that the images made by a camera pair up, somehow, with the millions of mentally constructed towns we’ve held inside our minds, those many places to which we never journey but yet know by heart.
Train travel offers a great chance to deal with these places that have no context, sometimes no name. The view from a train window is ever-shifting, strangely framed. You have visual information it gives you and nothing else. Things swing into and out of view in an instant. You are always going somewhere and always leaving somewhere behind. Focusing and composing with a camera is largely a nightmare, and sharp results are rare. It’s a great way to view reality, and also a terrible arena for photographing it.
Occasionally, a slow crawl through a town or a scheduled stop offers enough stability to make a usable photo, and, when that happens, the sensation is still one of dislocation, since you often are seeing only pieces of cities, the outskirts of districts, or the all-too-real “wrong side of the tracks”. Recently traveling from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada through the Sierras, my train slowed almost to stopping as it made its way past a small town’s crossing gate. The city was both everywhere and nowhere. The activity in the intersection could be taking place in a thousand places, each of them interchangeable with the others. I left my seat and walked from the second level of the car halfway down to the lower, where a larger window was mounted, placing me as close to the street as if I were crossing it on foot. The train slowed long enough for me to snap off three stable frames, one of which you see here. For a moment, I’m in the town, nearly of it. I don’t know where I am. Still, I feel right at home.
Years from now, as I turn the pages of a magazine or listen to someone’s dreamy tales, this place might act as a visual stand-in for the dimensions and details of things I can’t directly view. I don’t know why or how the mind makes that work. Maybe, in a way, we’re always making pictures, with or without a camera.