«I’m interested in how we experience a landscape (particularly an otherwise unremarkable one) both in the present day and in our memories. Recollections of geography that require any degree of specificity – with respect to distances, grades, the placements of topographical features, for example – are difficult to make unless one has reckoned the land quite closely.
Over the past several years, my father has been carefully considering the central Illinois landscape. A lifelong railroad enthusiast, he is building a model train layout in his basement. One of the lines represented in the model is the ‘Illinois Traction’, which he rode as a child before passenger service was abandoned in the 1950s. The railroad ceased to exist entirely in the early 1980s.
One afternoon when we had some time on our hands, he showed me some 30 miles of the railroad’s abandoned right-of-way. My project, ‘Illinois Traction’, consists of photographs made in the company of my father as we explored, over the course of 20 months from 2010 to 2012, the 275-mile corridor of land through which the ‘Illinois Traction’ railroad ran.
From my father, I learned a lot about railroading, and particularly the way in which a rail line relates to its environment. Understanding the aspects of the land that are crucial to the engineering of a railroad - the grade, for example, or working around or over bodies of water – offered me an entirely new way of experiencing a place. Plains, hills, forests, watersheds, small towns and cities: these are things I saw all the time in my home state, but which I never really appreciated, both in their singularity and their interconnectedness.
But perhaps more importantly, our explorations were related directly to the particular demands of building a scale train layout. As both a manifestation and an instrument of memory, a model’s goal is accuracy – a precision of description – in historical, geographical, and other matters. It’s a monument to things absent. But of course, absolute accuracy is impossible. While a town might be rendered in remarkable detail, it would be practically impossible to perfectly represent the miles between towns properly to scale.
I came to understand that the railroad modeler and the photographer have much in common. We both begin with an objective of fidelity to the real world, but immediately realize the impossibility of absolute accuracy in depiction. So we make our peace with that and strive to determine a way that our fact and fiction can comfortably coexist to express a “reality” that is not objectively perfect, but that is authentically ours. ‘Illinois Traction’ is my model for memory».