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In pictures: The empty railways of America

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image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionWest from Oacoma, South Dakota

One of photographer John Sanderson's earliest memories was family road trips to Pennsylvania from his home in Manhattan, New York.

While on one of these trips, 13-year-old Sanderson discovered the delight of taking pictures when shooting the Strasburg Rail Road and its historic steam engine.

Returning to the subject of railways in adulthood, he rebelled against his younger self and this time chose to photograph American railroads devoid of trains.

image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionFuel transfer station, New Windsor-on-Hudson, New York
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionTower at diamond crossing, Walkerton, Indiana
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionEarly morning, Stony Point, NY

This, he believed, allowed the pictures to focus on the surrounding context of architecture and landscape rather than simply the temporary presence of a train.

He said, "The proximity of the railbed to the environment, I later discovered, was a perfect way to explore America's national character."

image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionNA Tower, Martinsburg, West Virginia
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionHelme Snuff Mill, Helmetta, New Jersey
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionSteel Mill landscape, Cleveland, Ohio

The photographs capture everything from urban to rural environments, from the highest mountain ranges to the smallest towns.

Landscapes from the eastern to western states vary from high rise buildings, to grain silos and open fields.

image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionMainline out of town, Columbus, Ohio
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionDepot, White Lake, South Dakota
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionPassage, Downtown Columbus, Ohio

At times, Sanderson deliberately abandoned the typical vanishing point perspective of the tracks, instead producing horizontal views of the buildings that run alongside the tracks.

"As the project grew," he said, "shooting from this angle started to make so much sense because many of these places were built in lateral alignment with the railroad."

image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionPark Avenue Tunnel Cut, New York City
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionCoaling Tower, Marion, Ohio
image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionClearing Storm, Medicine Bow, Wyoming

He appreciated the quietness of the tracks, as opposed to the more frequently documented roads of America.

That is, he said, "until a 100 car-long freight train rumbles into the scene".

image copyrightJohn Sanderson
image captionView of Manhattan from Kearny, New Jersey

Photographs by John Sanderson.

Related Topics

  • United States
  • Photography
  • Rail travel