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Exile, and the railroad yards

In 1976 when I was studying photography at Metro State, the prevailing custom in the field was to work on a “series,” photographs that detailed a particular subject. One of my teachers chose to document gardens in Maine, focusing on hydrangeas, which she hand-colored on black and white prints. My series would be the railroad series.

I’ve long been interested in the places around people, the background, the contexts we move in and live in. The built environment, if you will. Denver was a place of exile for me, and as a Jew, exile is a common life theme. At Passover we say these final words: “Next year in Jerusalem.” (However you define Jerusalem).

The problem with exile is that you always want to be someplace else: home, a most elusive concept. But one has to make do, wherever. Initially disliking Denver, a city with no apparent center, I chose to work in a place that was essentially an exile from “normal” Denver. Here I would wander with the camera and plant my flag.

In Neal Cassady’s day, people lived in the yards, businesses operated there. By ’76 the area was desolate, rather unsafe and even hostile. Yet I learned that this was an important place. Freight cars were sorted, separated here, reconnected; trains were created, dissolved, then newly created. I was careful to stay out of the way.

This was the time when coal from the Northern Plains, mostly the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, began to supersede other freight on the Western railroads. Much of it rolled through Denver. And you can bet that the computer you’re using right now is probably powered by coal, carried by rail to the huge coal-burning plants around the United States.

Two years later, because of coal, I would be working on the railroad myself, as a locomotive fireman on the old Rio Grande, in Minturn and Pueblo, another exile. A story for another time.

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