Photographer Ed Worteck has been working on the railroad pictures for the past year, but in a sense they have been working on him for his entire life. Having grown up near railroad tracks in Baltimore County, he has often heard that whistle blowing.
Taken along Amtrak's Northeast Rail Corridor, his black-and-white photographs are now on display at Goucher College, where Worteck is chairman of the art department. His ground rules for the project were that the pictures be shot from the ground, not from a moving train, and also that they be shot within a two-block radius of the tracks.
As with his earlier work, which has been seen in venues including the School 33 Art Center and the Baltimore Museum of Art, Worteck seeks to find the bleak poetry in our industrial wasteland. His concern with the urban context, however unpretty it might be, comes through in picture after picture.
It is characteristic of the photographer that when he shoots the facade of Baltimore's Penn Station, for instance, its presentable and even dignified architectural face is balanced by the rather ugly ramps and surface parking at its base.
Likewise, a photograph taken as one approaches Union Station in Washington, D.C., has a centered factory smokestack as the most important pictorial element, while off in the distance is glimpsed a more venerable vertical architectural statement: the Washington Monument.
There is a grim fascination to much of this photographic record, as in the shot of a boarded up Romanesque style train station in Elizabeth, N.J. It is sad, of course, to ponder how far we have fallen from the glory days of railroad travel, but one also thinks of how a long-traveled landscape bears so many historical traces. And much of that fading history is relatively recent, as in the peeling factory wall sign in Wilmington, Del., that reads: "Guaranteed Destruction of Confidential Records."
Photographs like the last-mentioned suggest the humor and affection that Worteck brings to what would merely be dreary subject matter in other hands.
Close to home, for instance, there is a shot of Baltimore row-house back yards that initially seems quite depressing. The yards are small concrete pads separated by battered chain link fences. Trash cans and old cars are the only "lawn furniture." Clotheslines and utility lines add to the visual clutter.
Before you sigh about this being the side of Baltimore presented to thousands of train passengers, however, look closely at one back door, where someone has written "Merry Cristmas" (sic) with more holiday spirit than orthographic exactitude. Perhaps the city that reads still needs to work on its spelling, but at least our heart is in the right place.
Similarly, Worteck's photographs of Philadelphia may seem to be no more than incredibly depressing until you take a slightly longer look. The longer you consider the metal bars on the windows of a pest control supply building, the more you have to wonder who would want to break in there. Or consider a road sign reading "no outlet," which seems like a mere dead-end reference until the emotional association with the Sartre play title "No Exit" induces an existential smile.
And then there is the billboard for "Exotic Go-Go . . . 22 Girls Topless . . . Couch Dancing . . . Fantasy Showbar," all of which can be yours in a Mount Ephraim, N.J., club boasting of its convenient location near the Walt Whitman Bridge. A tawdry fantasy, to be sure, but you can't help wondering what sort of poem the expansive 19th century poet Whitman would have written from such sensuous images.
Ed Worteck's exhibit "Passing Time -- Photographs of the Northeast Rail Corridor: New York to Washington" remains in the Rosenberg Gallery of Goucher College through Dec. 22. Call 337-6116.