© Justine Kurland, Magic Hour, 2009


My work has always taken me to the road.

For the past ten years I have criss-crossed the United States in search of willing subjects to photograph. When my son Casper was born in 2004 the road no longer belonged only to me. Living together in a minivan for the better part of each year I was forced to modify every aspect of the road trip in order to accommodate this small person.


© Justine Kurland


Trains slowly became the central force in our lives. Our cramped quarters were outfitted with four large storage containers full of toy trains and by the time Casper turned two he was obsessed. We stopped at every railroad museum we could find, listened to the Smithsonian Folkways recordings of classic railroad songs in the car and, for diversion on longer stretches of highway, trespassed onto the federally protected railyards in order to have a closer look.


© Justine Kurland


Eventually, I began photographing the trains. The first day I set up my 4x5 camera along the tracks my son kicked the tripod and yelled, “No photographing, Mama!” He had just turned three, and my gift to him had been rejected. I’ve often wondered what Brice Marden’s paintings would look like if he were to hold his child on his hip while he painted. Would bunnies or trucks appear among the lines? Or, what if an artist’s struggles with parenthood were as romantic as an artist’s struggles with heroin? They are not. And still… I continued photographing trains.


© Justine Kurland, Keddie Wye, 2007


© Justine Kurland, Prospecting the South Fork of the Platte River, 2008


Being new to the world of the rails I often misunderstood the information provided on web-based user groups and Casper and I occasionally found ourselves waiting as long as six hours for a train that never came. Sometimes the tracks would be dead, or trains would be diverted for track workers. Often, as though through our vigil we were becoming part of the history of trains, just waiting was enough. Once, when waiting became unbearable for Casper he broke free and ran through the tall grass of the industrial wilderness lining the tracks. Yelling out, “I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody!” he was already showing the signs of the budding hobo.


© Justine Kurland, Spare Some Gas, 2010


Guided by a copy of “Crew Change,” a reference for hopping trains, I met kids who flew signs asking for money and I spent evenings drinking beer with them and petting their dogs. I crossed paths with activists, the descendants of the Wobblies, the first to use the rails to spread their labor politics. I spent a week with a wilderness squatter who cleared non-native invasives from the forests where he lived. Cuervo, who I followed through California periodically over two years had given up trains; when I met him he had just walked from Mexico to Northern California with 3 burros, a dog, and a wolf.

© Justine Kurland, Cuervo Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead, Doyle, 2007

We were constantly dodging the railroad police. I once scooped up my child and threw him over a fence thinking they had sent dogs after us, but it only turned out to be a wild boar. Many policemen wrote down our identification information, issued warnings and one told me, “It’s a crying shame you don’t cut that boy’s hair!” Sometimes it was easier to just let them think Casper was a girl as they patted him on the head and called him “sweetheart.” An officer I met in the Colton Yard was sympathetic. He pointed me in the right direction and later showed me his own photographs of trains. Having just finished reading a biography about Billy the Kid, I immediately recognized this policeman as Pat Garret.


© Justine Kurland, Snake, 2011


Riding the rails was an adventure on which I never dared take Casper. The inner circle of these modern hobos, their lives on the trains, remained outside my reach. Instead, I took a distanced view, my subjects gleaned from the intersection of our reality as railfans and our potential as riders. While I photographed trains Casper whispered the name of each car as it passed, “tank, gondola, hopper, hopper, hopper…” I made portraits of fellow travelers as Casper sang to us in melodies borrowed from Woody Guthrie. I pointed my camera towards history and at the same time recorded my growing son as he collected ladybugs from the fennel beside the tracks.


© Justine Kurland


© Justine Kurland, After Darius Kinsey, 2010


The resulting photographs are portals into the realm of railroad folklore. We who are brave enough (or stupid enough) to become explorers today, when all available land has been conquered and occupied, can still be, I believe, the builders of a new world and a new consciousness. The American frontier may have been settled, but America is, in another sense, unsettling rapidly. From our disappointment with decades of broken promises, we are breaking free and running into the industrial wilderness, calling out, "I don't need you, I don't need anybody!"


© Justine Kurland, Primitive Skills, Cordage, 2010



Justine Kurland