Wall of Light

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, September 1, 2019

I’d submit that the more photography of all kinds that you attempt will improve your railroad photography.  Part of this is simply an extension of “practice makes perfect” (or, in the realistic world, at least moves you in that direction).  In addition, however, if you can capture a competent, or better yet, interesting, photo of something where the subject matter isn’t your primary objective, it will be helpful when you’re trying to add an evocative rail photo to your body of work.

It’s also useful to consider how people in other artistic endeavors have enhanced their genre with innovative techniques.  While music may not seem an obvious choice, it might help you recognize worthy photographic possibilities when they appear; inspiration can come from a variety of sources, including the unexpected.

Consider early Rock ‘n Roll music, for example.  Much of it was relatively uncomplicated (i.e. simple) from a musical perspective; a symphony orchestra wasn’t called for, and clearly, wasn’t utilized.  However, by the 1960s, producer Phil Spector had devised what came to be known as the “Wall of Sound”.  According to the Definitive Encyclopedia of Rock (2006, Michael Heatley, General Editor), this was

Characterized by mono [as opposed to stereo] production … and had fantastically rich choral and orchestral layering (sometimes as many as 300 musicians) behind the vocals of the titular performers he worked with.

According to Wikipedia,

Spector explained … [that] ‘I was looking for a sound so strong that if the material was not the greatest, the sound would carry the record.  It was a case of augmenting, augmenting.  It all fitted together like a jigsaw.’

 He characterized his methods as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids.”

Examples of this include a number of songs performed by The Crystals and The Ronettes.  Later applications include the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”.  The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” provides an excellent example of the ‘layers’ concept: its instrumental opening begins with a single type of instrument (guitar); builds by adding other instruments prior to the vocals, and then proceeds into the main body of the song with a sound best described as full-bodied, to say the least.

I was reminded of this early on the morning of October 23, 2009, at the CSX’s (former RF&P) crossing of Neabsco Creek in northern Virginia.  The pre-dawn colors had built to a fantastic combination of sky, clouds and color by the time that CSX Q702 rolled northward across the bridge; a literal “trash train” never looked so good.  To paraphrase some of the above, “the light was so strong that even though the material wasn’t the greatest, the light carried the photo”.

If you’re lucky enough to find a “Wall of Light” to work with I hope that a train will grace you with its presence; if not, take the shot anyway! 

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