[The story behind a photograph sometimes changes the way we perceive that image. Guest photographer Kevin Scanlon shares the story behind one of his photographs – a story that reveals radiance that might otherwise be overlooked.]
My fantasy as a photographer is to have someone look at one of my prints on a gallery wall, put the back of their hand to their forehead and exclaim, “YES, that’s it EXACTLY! This photograph is very beautiful AND tells a great story!”
I hold up a frame to enclose a small slice of the world. Choosing what goes in that frame is the story I tell. My hope is to include enough to make the story clear, but sometimes a photograph needs to be married to words to be complete. My photograph of James and Cissy is an example.
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“Would you mind if we keep these?”
I was startled. Not by the question, but by the presence of other people. I had just driven an hour on a dirt road to a tiny isolated town and then several miles further on a rutted mud path along Laurel Creek. When I parked next to the train tracks I hadn’t seen another car since town and there were no buildings of any kind nearby. The tracks were perched on a narrow ledge about 20 feet above the creek. I was picking my way between the rails, watching my steps. The voice made me look up suddenly. As a photographer I try to notice little things but I hadn’t noticed a man and woman, smiling broadly and walking toward me carrying two steel railroad tie plates each.
“I think the railroad couldn’t really care less,” I answered. The man must have thought I worked for the railroad. “Watch out,” I said, “there is a train coming up behind me in a few minutes.” I knew the train was on its way and I was hurrying to find a spot along the creek to photograph it. The couple watched me climb down the bank to the water and gingerly crawl out onto a large rock. The man was yelling something down to me but I couldn’t make everything out, something about a waterfall. They walked back and joined me along the creek, telling me about a large waterfall down the track about a half-mile.
“Maybe I’ll take a look at it after I get my photo of this train,” I said.
“Okay, we’ll wait and show you where it is,” he said. They seemed eager to take me there. Why not? My sun was almost down and I had nothing else planned for the day.
“Alright, that would be nice.”
The train came; the woman asked the man to step away so that they wouldn’t get into my photo. They bounced up the slope to the tracks after the last coal hopper had passed. I labored up behind them, grabbing at branches and twigs to keep my balance. We all walked down the tracks past my truck.
“You can drive down there if you want,” he said.
“I think I’d rather walk.”
“We love walking. We do this every day, up and down the tracks,” he said.
He told me their story as we walked. They had gone for a stay in a fishing cabin in February. He had fallen in love with her and had proposed marriage when they first got there. They had been in the cabin for almost seven weeks now.
“In the first week it got down to minus 2 degrees at night,” he said. “We knew it was cold but didn’t know how cold until we found a thermometer on the porch. We didn’t have a saw so we had to go out and find branches I could bust with my foot for the stove. It sure was cold but we kept bundled up.”
He told me all about their stay in the cabin. About the other people who spent weekends in the other fishing cabins. About the 12-inch brown trout he had caught in Laurel Creek. We talked about water quality, coal mining, the Sago disaster and mine safety. They told me about a sycamore tree 27 feet around up in Webster Springs, and another spruce tree over 20 feet around near Bergoo, dead with a new spruce growing up out of the rotted stump. We talked about dandelion wine and ramps. We talked about other places he had done extended camping and we talked about the wedding. “We’re getting married in about three weeks right up at the cabin,” he said.
All along the walk they were picking up railroad spikes and bits of metal. “Kind of like picking ginseng, you have to leave a little for next time,” he said. I didn’t ask, but I’m guessing they were selling it for scrap. Clean steel scrap was selling for about $5 per 100 pounds. As we approached a short railroad bridge, maybe 100 feet long, James told me that on the first day when they crossed it, Cissy froze in the middle. He had to take her hand and lead her to the other end. He pointed out their cabin up on the hillside.
“Where’s the waterfall?” I asked.
“Oh, we passed it back there a little ways,” he said. “Doesn’t look as nice with all this water. You should have seen it in February when it was frozen over.”
“It sure was pretty,” Cissy said. “Just like a perfect picture.”
They were clearly in love with each other and happy to share their joy with a complete stranger.
“Next time you are in the area, drop by and say hello,” said James.
“Thanks, I will. It should be real pretty here in three weeks. All the trillium and wildflowers will be blooming.”
“I already got Cissy a dandelion bouquet!” he said.
I thanked them for the tour and wished them the best of luck. Before taking my leave, I asked, “How about I take a wedding picture for you? I’ll send you as many copies as you want.”
“Yeah, that would be great!” James didn’t hesitate. He and Cissy went over the names of people that might like copies of the photo. They stood between the tracks on the bridge for the photo as I moved off to the side.
“Give me a minute to set up the camera, I don’t take many portraits. Stay right there, the sunlight looks nice.” They didn’t just stand side by side; they embraced tightly and looked at each other, smiling. A wedding portrait. James wrote his address in my notebook as general delivery to the nearest town. I thanked them again and walked back to my truck, kicking a couple of railroad spikes out from under the leaves and into view along the way.
Photo credit: “James & Cissy” copyright © 2007 by Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon was born in Pittsburgh and has spent the past thirty-five years documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. He is drawn to subjects such as steel mills, the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and our dwindling railway systems. His photographs have been exhibited at art museums and galleries, and have appeared in various railroad-themed books and magazines, and on the covers of literary magazines and trade journals. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.