Rail travel invites parallels to the construction and consumption of landscape pictures. Like the stagecoach, which the railway succeeded, the train carriage provided the traveller with a novel, elevated view from which to survey the land, protected behind glass from the elements and whatever unpleasantries might lurk within it.
Rebecca Solnit begins her narrative of Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of the moving photographic image by describing the historical and technological contexts around which his high speed photography was explored. Solnit elaborates how the first railways shattered perceptions of distance through their ability to move across the land at speeds greater than anyone had travel before. So alien was such a capability that apparently, moving at the balmy rate of 30 miles per hour, passengers found the rapid succession of views from the windows incomprehensible.[i] Interestingly, when we dissect a sequence of moving image, which when allowed to run at their 30 or so frames-per-second seem to look sharp enough, it often turns out to be a series of single blurry pictures. Turner’s impressionistic Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, painted in 1844 captures something of the chaotic image that passengers – as well as onlookers of this new spectacle – must have experienced from their carriage windows.
Like the moving image – which, even at its most banal or tedious can be highly distracting – the views from the train window can be deeply mesmeric. Rail travellers entertain themselves in all manner of ways, but many chose the train purely to immerse themselves in thought, daydreams, or to simply stare for a time and take in the views of the land and the play of light across it. Trains get you to places, but they also offer their passengers tableaux vivants within the price of the ticket.
Railways often take us through kinds of terrain that we wouldn’t normally visit: their lines transect the land, often drawing longer connections between conurbations than roads by traversing around steep gradients and topographic features rather than taking the shortest route. (This isn’t always the case of course, and many railways have involved dramatic and brutal interventions to level flatter routes.) As a result of this, long distance railways tend to take travellers through relatively unpopulated parts of the land. In a British context this tends to be fairly unspectacular agricultural land that the majority of us are only likely to experience from the distanced viewpoint that some form of transport or another can offer. New railways are not always welcomed of course, particularly by those upon whom it will have a direct impact in terms of their lifestyles or property. The proposed ‘High Speed Two’ line to connect London to the North East has attracted controversy, not least around the cost of the project but how it might impact the appearance of parts of the land and the environments of its inhabitants.
The polarization between – typically – environmentalists and industrialists is of course one that dates back to the birth of the railways. Developers have been all too aware of the need to promote not just the economic arguments in favour of their railways, but the aesthetic ones. It is uncanny that one of the most important aesthetic discoveries of modernity (photography) coincided with the development of commercial steam travel – arguably the most significant technological advances.[ii] And it is fitting that this new medium was employed within some of the earliest, and still highly regarded, topographic surveys that were commissioned by railway companies and industrialists, who employed photographers including Muybridge, AJ Russell, WH Jackson, and Carleton Watkins. Joel Snyder notes how Watkins had an ability to represent the industrialization of the American West in sympathy to the land:
“Watkins’s photographs reinforce the commitment of his audience to a belief in a Western Eden, but it represents the Garden in a way that encourages the audience to see it as a scene of potential exploration and development. This representative scheme, then, presents the possibility of a double salvation – a return to unspoiled innocence and opportunity to profit from the violation of innocence. It offers, furthermore, a reassurance that this untouched West can withstand endless mass immigration and industrial exploitation.[iii]
Railway companies have made use of much more conspicuously picturesque imagery to promote the services and routes they offer the paying public, generally championing view of their destinations or the surrounding scenery, rather than the locomotives or their rails cutting through them. The neo-realist posters of the 1920s to the 1940s that tapped in to increasingly mobile populations still retain a mass appeal. In 1942, one such favourite of the railway companies, Frank Newbould was commissioned by the War Office to paint a series of picturesque images of Southern England, featuring the South Downs and Salisbury Cathedral, in his familiar style yet under the rousing strapline ‘Your Britain. Fight for it now!’ [iv]
The recent advertising campaign by the railway company First Great Western continues the picturesque traditions that are present in historical and contemporary railway promotional material. Moreover however, it vividly echoes Newbould’s nationalistic imperative, with the command to ‘Be a Great Westerner.’ Like the majority of Newbould’s railway posters, the machines and infrastructure of the railway haven’t featured on FGW’s billboards. Instead, glitzy panoramic photographs of destinations and landmarks throughout Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, the Western counties and South Wales have been put to use to entice weekenders and tourists to venture to the provinces. In cities like Bristol and Cardiff, similarly stock-looking images of the capital sprouted up to suggest the possibility of a reciprocal economic and cultural exchange. These images, such as the glistening sand at Weston-Super-Mare at sunset (actually, even ‘silt’ would be an over generous description of the surface of its beaches) are a fabulous illustration of landscape photography at its worst: generic and devoid of feeling or realism.
FGW’s campaign, however, designed by the Leith Agency received an industry award for what was celebrated by the Chartered Institute of Marketing for being “a truly exceptional campaign” [v] and was awarded the campaign of the year in May. The scale of the campaign is certainly impressive – installation shots are available on Leith’s website, and they include the domination of certain urban spaces.[vi] Given the extent of the damage and disruption to the network during the flooding and storms in 2014 and the isolation that this caused for many in Somerset,[vii] Devon and Cornwall, the necessity of a major effort to restore public confidence is evident.
Perhaps there is something exceptional about FGW’s financial commitment to the campaign that may justifiably be labelled “truly exceptional” (the campaign consisted of a range of different contexts including a video, which is also available on Leith’s website), however, the creativity of the photography, and the jingoistic strapline that accompanied them surely cannot be held to such high acclaim. The campaign also falls foul to the commonly misplaced emphasis on the importance of the location as integral to the success of the landscape image. The checklist of landmarks that are depicted on FGW’s billboard reads like a landscape photographer’s ‘bucket list’ of locations and monuments to collect in his portfolio, and overall, promotes a deeply cynical approach to the purpose of travel or recreation.[viii]
Rather than continuing with an outdated obsession with the destinations that railways lead to, if some thought was given to the potential of the uniqueness of the journey that FGW might be able to offer its passengers – as a means of experiencing and consuming the landscape – or celebrating the remarkable feat of civil engineering the Great Western Railway remains, then a more original, exciting and, above all, faithful campaign might have a chance to emerge.
[i] Rebecca Solnit (2004) Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury, p.9
[ii] IK Brunel’s Great Western Railway ran its first passenger trains in 1838, which runs a few miles past Lacock Abbey near Chippenham where Fox Talbot developed his photographic process, which he announced the following year.
[iii] Joel Snyder, ‘Territorial Photography’ in WJT Mitchell (ed.) (2002) Landscape and Power (2nd edn.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iv] For more on the campaign and other posters from the series see http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289
[viii] In fairness, the accompanying video does not dwell on clichéd views or landmarks in the same manner as the billboards, however, this piece demands a separate critique.