There are very few photographers who have exclusive projects shot from trains so when I came across distinctive trainscapes of Virginia, US based photographer Stacey Evans, I explored her entire portfolio and decided to feature it with an interview. Stacey provided me a lot of information and a set of her wonderful images from three bodies of work namely Passenger, The Space Between and Vast Uncertainties. Her trainscapes capture the American terrain through cabin window and bring forth the changing spaces with a quick forethought and timing.
Stacey also creates impressive papercuts and collages and examples of some of these are at the bottom of the post. Here’s a dialogue with her detailed replies about her work and influences etc. I decided not to shorten her responses as they make an interesting read and offer insight to readers and young photographers:
I am an artist living in the United States, Charlottesville, Virginia. I was born only thirty miles away in Waynesboro, Virginia. It’s a small city located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded by rolling farmland speckled with cattle and corn fields giving way to urban sprawl and industrial migration.
I like pathways, maps and seasons. My parents would take us places by car throughout the year. I was the third of four children and would beg for a window seat. Once situated, I’d put on my headphones, rest my head on the sill and watch the world roll by. It was a time to get lost in my own thoughts and contemplate my surrounding. Here, I learned to memorize landmarks to measure distance and time.
These early experiences influence how I see my surrounding.
My first assignment was given to me before I knew what to do with a camera. In middle school I became the yearbook photographer. The camera felt right in my hand. There was an instant connection, a realization I could use this tool to communicate. It was the first thing that really gave me my own sense of purpose. Creating order in the frame was satisfying. Since then the camera has been a guide through life.
As far as other art forms, I like to cut and tear paper creating avant-guard shapes and forms. The layering of imagery from previous experiences allows me to process my thoughts exploring my emotions about the world. The pieces are presented two ways, the original three dimensional collage and a two dimension photograph of the collage. This work requires access to a level of concentration and connection that is hard to access in my current schedule, so it’s slowly progressing.
Interaction in art and audience collaboration is a subject I return to regularly. I’m working on an installation exhibit with artist, Fenella Belle. We both are mid life with aging parents. The work is about being OK with the vast uncertainties coming toward us. Finding laughter, fun and play in a complicated world. We are developing a type of carnival art experience.
I’m interested in how people occupy, shape and transform space for use; how our experiences and feelings change over time and what we can read into the collective artifacts left behind.
Traveling by train became my access point to photographing the American landscape. To begin each trip, I research route maps and seasons to determine the path and time of year. The train is my moving studio on a predetermined path providing rapid passage through diverse regions. My interest in the landscape is the vernacular and how humans navigate the topography. From my seat, I gain a privileged view of scenes that are not accessible by foot, plane, or car.
How did the idea of photographing landscapes from trains originate and how challenging has it been over the years?
My train trips began on the east coast to visit New York City and Charleston SC, my camera was always with me. Traveling these routes you see diverse scenes in quick secession. The realization struck me this was a unique perspective; one I would never experience again. The moment was fleeting. I began making photographs.
One heartbreak was receiving a message from Amtrak two days before a northern departure. The recording said the Vermonter route was closed for repair north of Springfield, Massachusetts and we would ride a bus to Burlington. It would be costly to cancel, my airfare and an Airbnb had been book, so we went. It rained the whole way reflecting my gloomy mood. Despite the frustrations I made one of my favorite images, Taxi, while leaving New York.
I can make all the necessary travel plans in advance but on the day of the trip I become anxious until I am seated. When travelling coach class I choose my seat thinking about which side of the train and window I want as my vantage point. In sleeper cars I am assigned a room. Wether I’m facing north, south, east or west is not up to me, but I do have more control over reflections in the glass. I also wander as well, sometimes to the cafe car, the dining car, occasionally I just hang out in the hallway or exit area.
To stabilize myself and keep focus can be a challenge. The process of holding the camera in a ready position for long extended hours takes a toll on my shoulder. The upper level bedrooms on the Southwest Chief Superliner train was especially difficult as it sped up and rocked back and forth.
What is the core idea behind your project ‘The Space Between’? What do the titles try to convey through allusive or metaphorical titles of the photos of this series?
The core of The Space Between is to allow space for daydreaming. When I look through a pane of glass my mind wanders. I’m in one place, looking into another and my mind is somewhere else all together. The window is a place for my imagination to rejuvenate. The background changes, the framing is different but that space, the act of looking, is the same. I become transfixed, any window anywhere, the same feeling. The photographs are more static than Passenger yet the window and distant space continue to be key ingredients.
The titles are part of a conversation with myself and the viewer. They come from personal experience or cultural references that have left an impression on me. This type of title is starting to appear in Passenger as well. It’s an opportunity to share a feeling or description. We all have a childhood memories.
I try not to be too critical or methodical when I work. Intuition is my best guide. The Space Between began while travelling with photographer Lynne Brubaker. I take advantage of being in new places looking for a thread that connects to my work. I have several ideas in my head right now. A few are in progress, a few I don’t know if I’ll ever start. The projects I’m working on now seem to be never ending. It takes me a couple years to clearly evaluate the photographs. Once a project gains my confidence, I start planning how I want to present it. Work evolves slowly for me.
Your photography has a distinctive fine-art style with most of the images being amazingly serene and tranquil. How did this style evolve?
Thank you. I began my career as a digital technician, I observed how other people made photographs while discovering my personal approach. I was an assistant to an architectural photographer, Philip Beaurline, shortly after college. I remember driving one early morning to a shoot. We’d listen to NPR and chat. He asked me what I wanted, I remember responding, “peace.” He kinda chuckled, but I’ve achieved what I wanted, peace and comfort within the frame. And thankfully, my mind feels pretty peaceful these days. Life is hectic so I strive to find harmony in my compositions.
I was taught using film but digital was coming of age when I graduated from college. A professor told me if I learned Photoshop well, I’d always have a job. When I began my professional career I invested in digital cameras. I started Passenger with a Canon 5D and now I shoot a Canon 5D Mark III. Onboard the train my favorite lens is a 24-70mm.
Most of the work is done in manual mode, it’s difficult because the light is always changing but I am typically disappointed with priority modes. High ISOs are my friend. I prefer to make an image than not and shooting at night from moving trains requires it. I embrace the pixel and noise.
I use Lightroom to manage my archive and processing. Once I return from a trip I download, backup, pick selects then begin processing and making work prints I have absolutely no problem with manipulation but for me it depends of the project. Before I started photographing from trains I created montage images combining three photographs in Photoshop. Now, I do very little manipulation, color correction and tonal correction are main adjustments. I’m old school, I’m a big fan of the curve.
I have two favorite photographs that involve windows, “View From Hotel Window-Butte Montana 1956” by Robert Frank and “Pears in Window, Moscow” by Sam Abell. I had the opportunity to work with Sam Abell one summer through an education program at the University of Virginia Art Museum. He shared the process of making this specific photograph. Sam taught me patience and to continue to move through a scene while composing until you’ve captured or exhausted the moment.
There are so many great stories on the train. You overhear people talking. Travelling from Charleston to Richmond a little boy was staring out the window. He said to whomever was sitting next to him, “There’s a whole lot of world out there, a whole lot of world”. Another time it was spring break and a group of college girls were heading back to Virginia. We were passing through Baltimore where you see the most poverty stricken area I’ve experienced on the train. As she stared out the window she gasped and asked in a horrified tone, “Where are we?”
Waking up on the train is also a great experience. Physically I’ve been in the same place for hours but the outside world is completely different. I’m not a dawn riser but when I’m on the train I keep peaking for enough light to make a photograph. My favorite early morning photograph is Hay Bales (see below).
For me photography holds a little piece of magic. The amount of change it has gone through since its invention is astounding. For the first few years of the digital wave, I felt paralyzed. I had to rediscover why I wanted to make photographs. I am not trendy, I‘m more interested in a photographic life. That is a strength I see in Passenger, it will only get better with age. (I like to think this way about myself as well.)
The internet is beautiful in the way we can connect with people. It warms my heart when someone I don’t know from a distant place likes my Instagram photo. On the flip side, the internet and social media can take too much of my mental focus. Likes, instant response, it’s addictive. On my last visit to New York a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me led to Instagram likes. He told me I should buy likes. That just feels unethical.
In today’s world, I see a place for both gallery and online presentation. I enjoy the gallery experience of viewing artwork. It’s fun to stand in front of a piece and feel a reaction. Viewing an exhibition is like listening to an album, you get the range of what the artist is thinking. Online platforms have a similar feeling but I don’t spend as much time in the space. However, I may return to it more than a physical gallery.
Tell me about your achievements, awards, clients, publications or any book that you’ve authored, etc.
My biggest achievement is working freelance for 16 years. I have managed to support myself through a balance of photographic practices that include education, commissions and art. I work mostly on a regional level and some years are better than others. My clients include individuals, small businesses, non-profits and educational institutions. Earlier in my life I dreamed of traveling for work, but I like my home. I like falling asleep beside my husband, John Grant. He’s an artist as well.
I’ve been talking with people about eventually publishing a book around the train work. I have a few mock ups and have attended portfolio reviews and workshops to get feedback. I’m still discovering the arrangement and message with the work.
I’m not a competitive person so awards are not top on my list. I’ve won things here and there, a Puffin Foundation Grant, a first place cash prize at a street fair, an honorable mention, funded a kickstarter campaign. I go through years where I submit for awards and other years when I do not. Early in my career I’ve attended lectures by Mary Virginia Swanson and William Hunt at PhotoExpo in New York City. Both mention being part of the conversation of photography. Recently, I had reviews and conversations with both. Over the last few years through the internet, photography reviews and workshops, I’m beginning to feel more connected on a global level.
Please share your influences and favorite stuff: photographers, quotes, films, books, music etc.
My photography has been influenced by many great people and experiences. Robert Frank planted the seed that I wanted to photograph America. Imogen Cunningham inspires me to pursue a photographic life. Laurie Anderson makes me feel alive and connected through her art and music. My favorite recent read was Sally Mann’s Hold Still. We were both born in the Shenandoah Valley and are of Evans lineage so the book had personal connections for me. And goodness, just when I thought she could not top the last story, she did. She is an all time favorite not only because she lives in the area but because she is a photographer of great depth.
Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:
Be true to your heart, be true to your soul. There are billions of people making photographs. If you want to be a photographer show us what makes you wake up in the morning. Give yourself time to develop.