McNair Evans photographs Amtrak riders in his exhibition “In Search of Great Men.”

What One Photographer Saw Traveling the U.S. by Train 

What One Photographer Saw Traveling the U.S. by Train 

Behold
The Photo Blog
April 22 2016 10:04 AM

What One Photographer Saw Traveling the U.S. by Train 

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Approaching Washington’s Union Station, the Silver Meteor train crosses the Potomac at sunrise, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

In the summer of 2011, McNair Evans took a train from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been visiting his girlfriend, to Richmond, Virginia, for a friend’s wedding. The experience was a transformative one.

“I felt in love at the time, so the romance of this short ride really swept me away. We passed the backs of manufacturing facilities, Little League Baseball games, and tobacco fields where individuals worked with traditional hoes and rakes. I was drawn to the passengers on that route that not surprisingly mirrored the surroundings. They were very receptive to my camera,” he said.

After that, Evans decided to take a three-week, round-trip train ride from his home in San Francisco to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he’d discovered that a rail car belonging to his late grandfather was on display at the city’s newly remodeled historic train station. This cross-country journey was to be the first of many. For more than three years, Evans has taken biannual two-week-long Amtrak trips, beginning and ending in California, photographing the people and places he’s encountered along the way. His photographs are on display in the exhibition, “In Search of Great Men,” at San Francisco’s City Hall until Nov. 18.

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Evening light fills an empty Capital Limited café car en route to Chicago, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

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A young man watches from the sidewalk as the Southwest Chief passes through Trinidad, Colorado near the New Mexico border, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

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A 17-year-old travels through Texas on Sunset Limited with his father. He claims to be facing felony charges for the possession of mescaline, not unlike the character of his William S. Burroughs novel, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

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A young family travels between Chicago and Washington on the Capital Limited train, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

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Amtrak only has a handful of routes across the country originating from the West, which Evans pairs with various North–South routes to keep his trips fresh and interesting.* Invariably, however, he reaches familiar track at some point during the second half of any trip. Still, the scenery and passengers are constantly rotating, and he sometimes photographs up to 16 to 18 hours per day to capture it all. Passengers can catch Evans’ attention for a variety of reasons. It could be “the color of their pants, the meal they are eating, or they way they laugh,” he said, or an emotional aura. In addition to photographing them, he asks them to write narratives about their lives and their travels. These, too, are on display in the exhibit.

“It provides a safe place for them to share their story and a rich source for me to explore each person’s emotional nuances through his writing. The idea of a single perspective project felt self-indulgent, distant, and one-dimensional,” he said. 

Train travel is by no means the most popular way to traverse long distances today, but it’s still the preferred option of many Americans, including those who have physical or psychological aversions to flight. Some choose the train because it’s a cheaper way to transport large amounts of baggage. Others are simply train fanatics who love the system’s history and mechanics. Evans, meanwhile, chooses it for the human interactions it promises.

“I’m there because I love people, observing them, learning from them, and finding common ground between our lives. For a romantic humanist like me, it’s a wonderful way to travel,” he said.

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Self-portrait of the photographer taken on the Silver Star line, 2013.

Copyright McNair Evans

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Wes returns to California on the Southwest Chief from a visit with his brother in Tennessee, 2012

Copyright McNair Evans

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City streets converge with bayou when heading north from New Orleans on the Crescent train, 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

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Traveling to Oakland to visit his daughter via the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, Flem Flam writes, “It’s reality facing reality. But that fantasy, it’s a real motherfucker, brother,” 2012.

Copyright McNair Evans

Correction, May 25, 2016: This post originally misstated that Amtrak has three East-West routes. It has four East-West routes that originate from the West Coast. In addition, a photo caption in this post misidentified the location of the town that the Southwest Chief train was passing through. It was in Trinidad, Colorado, not New Mexico.

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.