Railroad Photography of John Sanderson

Photographer John Sanderson (b.1983) grew up in New York City and did his BA in Political Science from Hunter College. Much of his work reflects on the value of landscapes as something independent of their intended use. His work is firmly rooted in a cultural geography framework and his large-format photography explores and investigates the topographically broad subject matter of the United States.

Sanderson’s long-standing interest in railroad photography developed into a survey of railroad lines which collapsed as engines of urban economy and cultural activity beginning in the 1950s. These pristine images ‘establish a counterpoint between the documentary and poetic. Exploring the landscape in order to illustrate historic and contemporary motifs, Sanderson reveals a condensed history of the rapidly suburbanized and de-industrialized social geography unique to the United States.’

John_sanderson_01In 2013 and 2015, Sanderson was a recipient of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s docent scholarship program. Here’s a short discussion with him about his work:

What does photography mean to you or what is your statement as a photographer?

My work is an extension of what Walker Evan’s called the lyric documentary, or as I have come to adapt it, the documentary and poetic. To briefly define my terms, the documentary is that which reveals particulars of a certain place at a certain time – in other words, a historical quality. The poetic indicates a heightened mood and directs how the photograph portrays its subject – for instance, the attribution of light and weather. When developing projects or bodies of work, I relate each picture through recurring motifs and cross-illustration — the presence of the railroad line in the Railroad Landscape series; or in American Traditions we see motifs such as roadways, text in the landscape, and portraits. The documentary/poetic mode runs across these projects at various intervals.

John_Sanderson_02How did you develop interest in large format photography? What characteristics and qualities distinguish it from other types of photography?

The large format camera slows down my process. Because of the camera weight and numerous steps involved before exposing film, one learns to think in a state of ‘accumulated photographic intentions’. That is, tending to do a lot of the compositional, conceptual and camera placement decisions “in the mind’s eye”, as Ansel Adams would say, prior to photographing.

John_sanderson_05What kind of images do you like shooting most? I find your railroad landscapes, American Traditions, and Palimpsests unique among all your work. What was the idea behind each these works and what were the challenges concerned w.r.t. railroad landscapes?

My images investigate America. Coming from a background in Political Science, I find the rapid changes in social structure unique to this country an abundant source for creating pictures that stand as visually and historically interesting. If we look at three canonical photographic projects — The Americans, Uncommon Places, and the Farm Security Administration work — each have taken the U.S. as their subject. They are catechisms on the American experience, uniquely directed from the eye of their maker and presented through the uncompromising medium of photography.

John_sanderson_06 (2)My mentor and acting coach Wynn Handman often says the aim of theater is “to reveal mankind to itself”, and I feel that’s true of photography. The challenge is how to do this well — for me it was allowing myself the creative freedom to go out and create pictures without formulating them into a series too soon. Let process develop the work naturally.

Tell me about the photography equipment (camera, lenses, and software) you use. Do you ever use any walk-around digital camera? How does rapidly changing photography technology affect you/your work?

My work is done with film cameras. I find it distracting when multiple types of cameras are on hand. Each format has a unique working process and calls for certain subjects. I find this especially true with analog, where cameras range from 35mm, medium format, and large format.

John_sanderson_06 (3)Do you have a favorite photo or a significant memory related to photography?

The composer Aaron Copland was once asked which one of his compositions was his favorite. His answer was that each one for different reasons: some were very hard to compose, others because they generated praise, and still more because they were lucrative. I like his answer. That said, my most satisfying picture is Riverline, Newburgh, New York. It encompasses the documentary/poetic most fully.

The first time walking into my solo exhibition of Railroad Landscapes at the New York Transit Museum remains a most vivid memory. To see the result of five year’s work hanging on the wall as large format prints in a New York City museum was quite something.

John_sanderson_06What do you think about contemporary photography?

Compared to a century ago, when there were only a few galleries (and Alfred Stieglitz) exhibiting photography, the opportunities for getting the work seen today seems nearly limitless.

What are your future plans/projects, ambitions, aspirations etc.? What about publishing a photo book of your images?

I have several things in the works…

In April I am presenting at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art at Lake Forest College, outside of Chicago. They have been a great support for several years now.

John_sanderson_07 (2)After a successful Kickstarter campaign to photograph railroad landscapes in the Great Plains and Montana in 2015, I am hoping to photograph the American south-west and west coast in a similar fashion.

Opening in March at the New York Transit Museum will be Art on the Tracks: Teen Photography, an exhibition of prints from a film photography workshop I developed and led with Janina McCormack last fall. Also with the Transit Museum I am working on a re-photography project for an upcoming exhibit on the New York City Subway, which will be on display at the museum’s Grand Central Terminal Annex in late July.

With regards to a book, I am actively on the lookout for publishers.

John_sanderson_07 (3)Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers (or something completely random):

A passage I wrote during a photography trip:

The Process of Photography (for me)

The Satisfaction of finding something… expected and surprising.

The Way all those hours, days, of wandering without success are vindicated when I find a combination of time, place, light and composition which become a successful photograph.

The Visual beauty I see during those times of discursive failure, things which I know are potential subjects but neither fall within my interest or skill-set.

What I Learn from those quick passing observations: the juxtaposition of a tree against a rock, the color of a brick building illuminated by the setting sun, the way a human figure adds scale to a situation. Their usefulness comes later.

Finding a portrait of a person which reveals an unexpected visual quality: the interplay of color – the relation of objects to the person.

The Cathartic feeling when I realize a certain photographic idea, or “thread” is dead, trite and without further attempts, to bury it and move forward to new approaches.

John_sanderson_07 John_sanderson_08 John_sanderson_09 John_sanderson_13 John_sanderson_14 John_sanderson_16 John_sanderson_17(2) John_sanderson_17 John_sanderson_19 John_sanderson_20 John_sanderson_0112All photos © John Sanderson : Website | Instagram

About Nishant Mishra

Nishant studied art history and literature at the university during 1990s. He works as a translator in New Delhi, India and likes to read about arts, photography, films, life-lessons and Zen.

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