Morning sunlight illuminates a breakfast conversation on the Crescent to Atlanta. © McNair Evans /Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery

A photographer travels the U.S. on Amtrak to document the lives of the passengers on board.

At the time of its invention, train travel represented speed. Tracks crisscrossed the United States, pulling intrepid travelers from coast to coast at a pace that surpassed any found in nature.

Now, it feels slow. But nostalgia runs through each trip on a train, says the photographer McNair Evans. For almost four years, he’s been capturing scenes from the 17 major Amtrak routes that run north to south and east to west across America. He’s taken five trips so far, touching on 14 of those routes. During each, Evans seeks out the company of his fellow passengers, photographing them and listening to their stories. His series, titled In Search of Great Men, is on display at San Francisco City Hall through November 18.

Approaching Union Station in Washington, D.C., the Silver Meteor train crosses the Potomac at sunrise. 2012. (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)

There’s an unhurried quality to Evans’ photographs, and always, a sense of discovery, which mirrors the experience that sparked his project. In the summer of 2011, Evans took the train from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia. It was a short trip, around three hours. “I had my camera with me, and I was just overwhelmed by what I saw in that particular stretch,” Evans says. “The height of the train wasn’t a perspective that I was used to; it’s slightly higher than if you were walking. We passed through incredible farmland; in one field in particular, a tobacco field, there were two people working with antiquated hand tools. The landscaped blurred, and there was this sense of time past. All of it came together for an extreme romance.”

Photographed from an eastbound Empire Builder train, plumes from an industrial manufacturing facility over a frozen river near La Crosse, Wisconsin. 2013. (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)

There was a tension between the romantic symbol of the train and the reality of it. What bridged the two, Evans discovered, was the experience of the passengers.   

“On the train, people are not in control of their time,” Evans says. “They’re at the mercy of the speed of the train.” Everyone is in it together, and that can make people more likely to chat. “Communal transportation yields a greater receptivity to talking with strangers,” Evans says. “It creates a really fertile environment for just getting to know each other, and sharing each others’ stories.” Almost everyone he asked to photograph said yes.

The Silver Star train provides transportation into the city center for some who work at night. (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)

In the winter of 2012, Evans took the first long journey of his project: a roundtrip from Emeryville to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to locate a train car his grandfather had once used while working for the Laurinburg & Southern Railroad company. Evans took the trip, he says, to connect with his family mythology, to discover something more about himself and where he came from. But speaking with his fellow solo passengers throughout the 18-day trip, he found that almost everyone else was traveling alongside him in search of similar understanding. “And by being receptive and interested in their journeys, I could draw parallels with my own,” Evans said.

In his notebooks, also included in the exhibit, Evans recounts the conversations he had along the way. One woman he spoke to was traveling home to reconnect with old friends she had left behind. “I hadn’t realized how symbolic this train ride would be,” she said. And Evans encountered a man riding the train to close the distance between himself and his loved ones. “I’m hoping this train brings me connection…[It’s] strange to me, how living 30 minutes from someone you love can make you distant. But living 13 hours away can make you fall in love all over again.”

A man traveling to Oakland to visit his daughter via the Southwest Chief train to Los Angeles. 2012. (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sash Wolf Gallery)

The meaning of his title, In Search of Great Men, is constantly evolving for Evans. It began as an homage to James Agee and Walker Evans’ book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which documented the lives of sharecroppers across the country during the Great Depression. But in the course of his work, Evans happened upon a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.” In that line, he saw his project come together.

“Great,” in Evans’ work, is not a judgment or an assessment. Rather, Evans says, it denotes an understanding the people he meets on the train “are actively seeking a better life. They’re traveling with a hope that life can be better.”

A young man watches from the sidewalk as the Southwest Chief passes through Trinidad, Colorado near the New Mexico border. 2012 (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)
A young family travels between Chicago and Washington, D.C. on the Capital Limited train. 2012.  (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)
Evening light fills an empty Capital Limited café car in route to Chicago, Illinois. 2012. (© McNair Evans/Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery)

In Search of Great Men is on view at San Francisco City Hall through November 18.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  2. photo: Former HUD secretary Julián Castro

    How to Head Off a Coronavirus Housing Crisis

    Former HUD secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro has ideas for state and federal leaders on protecting vulnerable renters from a housing disaster.

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  5. Coronavirus

    Black Businesses Are Not Getting the Coronavirus Relief They Deserve

    The latest U.S. coronavirus aid package promises a partial and uneven economic recovery that leaves behind the African American community.