In an artist's statement accompanying his "Passing Time" exhibit at Goucher College, Ed Worteck says he got the idea for the show from H. L. Mencken. The Baltimore journalist had once described the rail route from here to New York as, in Worteck's paraphrase, "the most Godforsaken and depressing route in all of America."
A photographer who heads Goucher's art department, Worteck has lived or worked near railroads much of his life, and the shots he's taken during the last two years along the New York-Washington route bear Mencken out. There is certainly ample ugliness here -- rotting cars, dilapidated buildings, cityscapes marred by billboards and power lines, back yards that look like dumps.
We know all this; we've seen it all ourselves. To see it again, through Worteck's selective and organizational eye, is to become conscious of what the artist does. For Worteck endows a number of these images with considerable beauty, some formal, some emotional.
The first work in the show, of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station (Worteck's titles only identify the city, so to use them would be repetitive), is a study in light and shadow, and in white and gray and black. The next is of a hillside of flowers in Philadelphia, nature recapturing a portion of the city. A photo of a church and a billboard in New Brunswick, N.J., presents a complex of plane geometry. A shot in Philadelphia makes a series of mid- and high-rise buildings look like a range of mountains and plateaus.
Several of these works set up a counterpoint between the man-made and the natural. In several more, including at least two in Philadelphia, the camera fairly caresses decay, raising it to something like a romantic level.
Nevertheless, a commentary of sadness and anger runs through these photographs. But if the overwhelming temptation is to read these images as evidence of American decline, to do so would be a mistake.
America may well be in decline, but if so it has little to do with the scenes Worteck records, as his reference to Mencken reminds us. Mencken rode the same rails in the boom period of the 1920s, the bust period of the 1930s, the war period of the 1940s, and what he saw out the window through all those decades was probably pretty much like what we see today. I remember the same corridor since the 1940s, and through the period of America's great economic prosperity of the 1950s, and the scenes were just as Godforsaken and depressing then as now.
The roots of the ugliness Worteck records are deeper than decline; they are the result of industrialism itself, of which railroads were a vital part. And so, while Worteck's work adds up to an indictment, it is an indictment of the ideas that built the
railroads in the first place.
"Passing Time" continues through Dec. 22 at the Rosenberg Gallery of Goucher College, Dulaney Valley Road in Towson. Call 337-6116.