Sitting on a passenger train somewhere in eastern New Brunswick and listening to a voice announce that the train will be an additional four hours late getting into Halifax, it's easy to forget that train travel was once a crucial mode of transport. Photographer Scott Conarroe is conscious of this change. Known for his large-format, long exposure landscape photographs of hockey rinks and bridges devoid of people, in 2007 Conarroe turned his focus to trains.
Conarroe, who received his MFA from NSCAD in 2005, spent the 2000s moving around Canada, scrapping some of his photos with each move. "I noticed that a lot of the work I kept keeping...had railroad tracks somewhere in the frame," he says. "My sidelong interest in railways began to dawn on me then."
His earlier landscapes were shot at locations across the country, from the west, where he grew up, to the east, where he studied, to central Canada, where he moved after Halifax. "At some point I got it in my head that going different places and making work about the local realities is a good way to become relevant to new people. A study of railways was what I seemed to have been working up to," Conarroe says.
The pictures in By Rail, exhibiting at MSVU Art Gallery, travel from the east coast of Canada to the west, down into the southern US and to Chicago, where Conarroe was teaching. He began shooting in southern Ontario in the summer of 2007 and left on the trip that generated the majority of the series in January 2008, travelling until mid-September that year.
He undertook the journeys by van rather than train, reasoning that relying on his own transportation and accommodation was simpler than matching it to train schedules. Conarroe primarily photographs at dawn and dusk, so having his own vehicle allowed him to scope out locations during the day. He suggests that this way of working is in line with the nature of the project. "By Rail isn't an inventory of tracks and trestles and stations. It is a study of how our civilization occupies the landscape at this point in history; the railway gives a sense of structure to this big sprawling project."
Conarroe sees the railway as a symbol of the industrial golden age, and a facilitator of many of the "grand narratives" of Canadian and American culture. Both countries were built on the promise of a coast-to-coast rail link; other forms of communication, like telegraph lines, rose up around the railways. The development affected people of many cultures: native residents, and the workers who built the railway, Civil War veterans and immigrants from Europe in the east, immigrants from Asia at the Pacific. He suggests the railways' decline is a result of a specific North American psyche and car culture. "While the rest of the developed world is decades into a rail renaissance, we carefully construct arguments as to why it is an outmoded technology," he says.
Conarroe speculates that rail travel has a longer-term potential in North America; he points to the massive rail expansion ongoing in China, which looks to alter the landscape and transport network in a way similar to how the train reshaped early America. He expects the influence to filter back.
"As a culture, we tend to see the railway as a symbol or heritage contraption rather than a way to travel," he says, noting that the last trains he travelled on were in Shanghai and a heritage steam train in BC.