Tag Archives: End of the Line project

Los Angeles 2001

A man’s fingers hold a photograph that I made and gave to him in 1974 and he has carried it with him for 27 years on his meandering across the country, riding freight trains and living by his wits with just the clothes on his back and my photograph.

What is the value of a photograph to a man who seemingly has nothing?

My documentary project in the Los Angeles freight yards, photographing tramps and runaways, ended after ten years in 1983, but in 2001 I returned to the yards just for old times’ sake. As I walked alongside the mainline tracks into L.A. a voice called out. “Hey Mr. Picture man where you headed?” I remembered the unchanged voice instantly and turned to see my old friend smiling at me. He hugged me hard with one arm and with the other, drew his prized possession from his pocket and held it up for me to see, a horribly mutilated, tattered beat up piece of paper. A photograph I had made and given to him in 1974.

We were two old guys hugging by the tracks, each with tears in his eyes as we looked at the tattered photograph that meant so much to both of us. I thought, how could this be? First of all, how could that little photograph have lasted this long carried in the pocket of a wandering man, a rough and tumble man of the road, super tramp among men. He did what most men cannot do. He could be anywhere with nothing and survive and be happy doing it. For 27 years he had been doing that with my photo there in his pocket, ready to be brought out to make him smile. He had tough times, but my photo brought a smile and some comfort to a poor, huddled and cold man who lived this very dangerous lifestyle and would take it out in good times to show off.

“The road is going to get you” the older men will tell you. The freight train is an iron beast that will beat a man to death in a few hundred miles. A boxcar door can slam shut on your dangled legs when the brakes go on and those big steel wheels take your legs away, leaving you to bleed out by the right-of-way. There is no right of way for the tramp, only for the railroad and “if the railroad don’t get you, a predator tramp will wait and hit you upside the head and you dead.” The road gets most men in five years at the most.

He survived, because he was not an alcoholic and he knew in his mind that he was doing something that most men and women could not do. “Put me down anywhere and I will find scrap metal and copper wire and I will be sitting pretty.” He lives his way along the railroad “right of way” and is at peace with himself.

The greatest and most emotionally moving shock that I ever got was when he pulled out my photograph from his dusty pocket. How could this be? What is the worth of a crumpled photograph of a group of bums sitting around together in a trash filled field hard by the main line tracks? They sat at the end of the line and I took a picture and then gave a print to my friend. He is not even in the picture that he loves so much. No one can ever take this experience away from me, or him, and that makes me cry.

My photographic journey has lead me on a search for truthful photographs that might speak to men of other men and each man to himself, and to make photos that could lead to a better understanding and love for others. Oh yes, the camera and my heart have led me to places where maybe some understanding is needed. The camera records the emotion and personal reactions of us as we make photos with the hope that something of value will result from this collaboration of heart mind and soul. This is my love story of my searching journey of love and understanding through photography, and with it reach out with visual poems that might have the power to sooth and make a smile.

During my ten years in the yards, I made photographs of men and women who I would meet again and again over the years as they passed through on the way to nowhere. Many became friends and I always tried to give them photographs, because I saw them swell with smiles and thanks as they held my photos. No one had ever given them a photo of themselves. They called me the “Picture Man” and I love them so. The photographs that I do on assignment are paid for and then go away, the photographs that are purchased by collectors give me money and pleasure, but the pictures I give away, are mine forever.

My photograph had come back to me and I wanted to make a photograph that would somehow preserve the feeling of that special meeting there by the tracks. . The question for me when making a photograph is always what to include in the frame and why? How much information do I need to show in order for the viewer to understand the situation in the photograph? What is the center of interest and what details should I include that might give more strength and meaning to the center of interest and result in a meaningful photograph. What do I need in the image to tell the story?

In this image the center of interest are his hands and the tattered and torn photograph that he held and that was so dear to him and to me. No face. Including the face would distract from the photograph and the face is not important to the story. There are no names when one is on the road.
The most important requirement for the social documentary photographer is to get in close to the subject. Close in with the camera and close in with understanding and compassion for the subject. Getting in close is always difficult in sensitive situations and the method I used to get close to the tramps is for another blog post.

My workshops are designed to show photographers my technique for getting in close, without disturbing the subject and without getting into trouble. I have worked the streets of the world and have developed methods for avoiding any trouble and also methods for getting out of any trouble. The street can be a dangerous place for the unwary or unprepared photographer. I enjoy sharing my technique and philosophy about this wonderful medium.

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, Street Photography Tips, Street Photography Workshops, The Human Condition Also tagged , , , , |

CHRISTMAS IN THE L.A. YARDS

Social documentary project LA YardsOn a cold dark Christmas Eve a very long time ago, two figures slowly walked in search of shelter for the night. They had no money for a room, or even a bed and were exhausted by their long journey. This was the Los Angeles freight yards of 1974 and the two men had ridden for many hours in the bottom of a “Gondola” car which was part of the freight train that had finally stopped in Los Angeles, the farthest west one could travel. They were at the end of the line, which for many, who rode freights west, it surely was the end of the line.

 

The two men were brothers-in-law and had been on the hard road for many years now. Chasing or running, who knows, but it had started to rain and the men were forced to climb a chain link fence and seek some small shelter in the parked cab of a garbage truck that had no doors. There was a big white crown painted on the side of the truck. Crown Disposal Company, the sign read, with two cold princes of the road huddled inside, while the heavy rain beat a drumming racket on the steel top of the truck, which made sleep impossible, but there was a half gallon of red port between them and also the photographs in his wallet that made the man smile as he looked at the faces by the soft glow of a nearby street lamp.

 

The photographs were of children lined up for the camera that day seven long years ago, about the time he was to leave forever for a wandering life on that hard, hard road that many men and women have to walk. Two men, haunted by the faces in the wallet and the past lives that lay in ruins without them. Two men in a truck in the cold rain of the seventh Christmas Eve that they have spent on the road, but they had a bottle of wine between them.

 

 

Christmas day found them waiting for a train that would take them out of this very dangerous place where hundreds of tramps, runaways and predators came in the winter to escape the cruel cold of the east. Head west they said. Pick oranges off the trees and sleep on a warm beach. There were no oranges or places on the beach, just a hard cruel place where other men waited for the unwary to drop their guard and end up badly beaten or dead at the end of the line.

 

It was Christmas day and after my wife and three year old son and baby girl had our celebration of presents and cookies, I headed down to the Los Angeles freight yards where I had photographed for a year on a project that was to last for ten years. Ten years of photographing the tragic lives of rail road tramps, hoping that maybe my photographs might in some way provide a more compassionate understanding of the severely damaged and mostly unprotected men and women who wandered on foot along the outskirts of what we call society. Tramps are shunned as bad, dangerous or crazy souls who must be avoided. The truth that I found in that bad, bad place was that these tramps were someones brother or son or father, who had had a bad shock in their lives that they could not handle and so they took to the road of remorse and pain.

 

It was a loving and very understanding wife who did not mind me leaving on Christmas day for a couple of hours to do what I had done almost daily for the past year.

 

The brothers-in-law were sitting on the dirt by the side of the main line in and out of L.A., waiting for their destiny to arrive in the form of an outward bound freight train that would take them somewhere else. Anywhere but L.A. I approached them with a smile and a Nikon F, with a 28mm lens, which would force me to get so close that some of their misery would invade my heart and stay with me these many years later. We talked, we shook hands, I photographed as I knew I must to share this subject or life story with others through my photographs. It was so hard for me to listen as their lives poured out to me and me clicking away with tears in my eyes and heart. I must though, because this little situation or life drama that I found myself in was important in some way.

 

The man with the hat had once been a Cadillac dealer in one of the most affluent cities in the country. He had two families which were unknown to each other. One in Mexico and one in Texas. So many faces in the wallet long gone, with a bottle of wine between them. Seven years gone, with the brother-in-law from Mexico he had persuaded to leave with him on a long search or escape from themselves.

 

The photographs were of the faces of children who were now many years older. The boy would be fourteen now somewhere, but there was a bottle of wine between them. The bottle was always there, even as he showed off his long ago family, the bottle was there in the background. The empty bottle.

The brother-in-law from Mexico said nothing. He was in pain and mostly sobbed as he turned their last coin in his hand over and over again. Round and hard like the train wheels that beat them up for so many miles. We were friends for the twenty minutes that we spent together on that Christmas day so long ago. In twenty minutes the life story of two tragic men had been poured out to my saddened ears. I still carry their pain. Their stories were very similar to the many stories I was to hear over the ten years of my documentary photography project.

 

The pictures will never go away. The words are here to stay and I was there. I made these photographs and wrote these words for everyone, but the best thing is that I was there. I photograph because I must.

 

Posted in Social Documentary/Street Photography, The Human Condition Also tagged , , , |