Available Light: Scene from a Moving Traing, by W. Scott Olsen

Scenes from a Moving Train

Prose + Photographs by W. Scott Olsen

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Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place

There is something seductive about a glance. The moment feels like an invitation, fleeting and sudden. A vision calls us in, promises to reveal or unfold, to open a secret perhaps, or a truth. But then it’s gone. Whatever tempts us eludes us as well.

It’s an interesting problem.

What remains is a feeling. A feeling of hope, of being this close, of knowing that if we had more time, time to settle, to slow down, we might get closer. We could look around the corner, behind the door, inside the smile.

Interior of train station in London.
Photo by W. Scott Olsen.

This is why I love the road trip, the few hours I get to spend as a pilot, the inside of a moving train. It’s easy to image the car or airplane or railcar as stationary, the land and rivers and clouds appearing on the horizon, moments later passing under tires or wings or rail and then receding. The scenes rarely match. City and forest and farmstead. Wilderness and blight. It’s a planet-sized show.

Few things are more alluring than a bend in the road. Whatever rests ahead is close and yet beyond us. We are moving toward something. We are about to learn what’s there. It’s oftentimes beautiful. It’s oftentimes despair. The landscape changes, but what remains constant is desire.

Usually, a photographer is stationary. Fixed to the ground by a tripod or legs, the camera is stable and the subject has the freedom to be a racecar, a rocket ship, a hurdler or pole-vaulter, a galaxy, or a dandelion in the backyard. It is unusual for the camera to be moving at 182 miles an hour, and trying to capture that glance, that invitation or warning. A snapshot is all that’s really possible. But any capture can be revealing.

Crossing road and fields.
Photo by W. Scott Olsen.

In one way, a camera with a very fast shutter speed contradicts the desire of a very fast train. The train allows no image to linger. The camera stops time. Why is there a castle in that urban setting? Who tends that field? That church, does it have a name? A rich history? It’s impossible to recollect the motion of a train. A photograph is nothing but recollection.

I know little about rural England beyond schoolbooks and news reports. I know even less about rural France. And perhaps this is why I love the train from London’s St. Pancras station to Gard du Nord in Paris. I know the cities well enough. I’ve been on the train before, too. At speed, though, I wonder who lives, works, laughs, or cries in the places that rocket by my window. I see a church and wonder about the tenor of the organ there. I see a field and wonder about the soil. Yes, I think. I would like to stop, to enter the church, to dirty my boots in some field. But there is deep joy in wondering, too.

At speed, everything is promise. Everything is potential. Everything is a hint, a glance, a promise of an intimacy, happy or sad, that will come with stopping.

Available Light | Scenes from a Moving Train
Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:


W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where is also edits the literary journal Ascent.  His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).  A previous contributor to Terrain.org, his individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review Online, North Dakota Quarterly, Utne Reader, Lensculture.com, The Forum, Plane & Pilot, AOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.
View additional prose and photography by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: On Seeing New York: A Photo Essay, Chasing Clouds, and River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River.

All photographs by W. Scott Olsen.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.