Colin T. Gifford
Decline of Steam
Ian Allan, London, 1965
Wigan, Worksop and Walsall are not generally recognized as places of beauty, There is, however, as much appeal to the aesthetic senses in an industrial area, as in any other locality. One could be forgiven for thinking that the ideal railway picture can only be taken at Shap, Sonning, Sapperton and the like, or on a rural branch line, provided, of course, that the sun is behind the photographer. A picture can always be made whatever the situation and given favourable conditions the possibilities are almost unlimited.
What are favourable conditions? They are not necessarily sunshine, clean engines, and picture-postcard scenery. The sea wall at Teignmouth may require sunshine to be in character, but mist and fine rain enhanced the line that traversed the Pennines from Barnard Castle to Penrith. Sheffield without its industrial haze would be as incomplete as an engine without exhaust. A grubby' ROD' is as appropriate at the head of a coal train as is a shining 'Deltic' on the 'Queen of Scots'. These are conditions I would favour, but any combination of motive power, location and weather is a challenge to the photographer. The main obstacles are those which he may impose upon himself, arising from an inability to cope with the circumstances prevailing.
Yet unforeseen circumstances can often transform what might have been a mediocre shot into a real picture, by that element of luck; conversely there is always 'the masterpiece' that failed to materialize because of that same unexpected factor. But not knowing what will happen next is a continual inspiration to me.
If he wishes to take full advantage of what his subject may offer, the conscientious observer must be in touch with it whenever possible. The railway photographer is fortunate in this respect for he can both travel on and photograph his quarry and I think it necessary that he does so in order to obtain a complete and realistic pictorial record. There is as much to be seen in and around the station as elsewhere, and those who travel by means other than rail deprive themselves of numerous photographic opportunities [condivido pienamente, ndr].
To many, the railways are a collection of numbers or machines, often divorced from their environment. Others including myself, think of them not as an entity, but as one with their surroundings. They are an integral part of our country and way of life, which, to a degree they have made; they operate day and night in all types of weather, conveying anything, be it battery chicks or road vehicles (their active competitors), from Penzance to Wick or Hastings to Holyhead.
It is not surprising that the railway has such a universal appeal. There can be little doubt that the heart of this is the fascination of the steam engine, a machine of definite character, each one possessing a personality of its own. The diesel, and, to a lesser extent, the electric locomotive lack the animation of the steam engine, but steam is not the only living part of the railway world, and when it disappears from regular service, those who love railways should still find sufficient variety and compelling atmosphere to stimulate their interest.
The decline of steam is not echoed by those interested in railways, whose numbers are increasing. Never have so many cameras been at work, recording the railway scene. Books on the subject appear more frequently, society membership grows steadily, and platform ends accommodate larger numbers of 'spotters'. It might well be that the threatened extinction of steam is the impetus. The magnetic pull of the obsolescent acts as an incentive to those dedicated to the preservation of the things we love, whether active or static, and as time passes, we shall become increasingly grateful to them.
Colin T. Gifford
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