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