I used to think it was a little bit humorous when my father’s mother, my grandmother, would express her disappointment in a pair of shoes that didn’t last her 20 years. Twenty years for shoes, I thought. That’s crazy.
Well, I’m not so sure now that was crazy at all. And I think more and more people are beginning to think the same. There’s a whole slew of people looking for things that are more tangible, more concrete. Things you can hold in your hands, things you can admire and value like vinyl records, film cameras, even, gasp, DVDs! Just like in the “old days.” There’s something to be said for that rosy backward glance.
Photographer Astrid Riecken’s latest project dovetails beautifully into that tendency to pine for something more tangible. Her photos, mostly centered on the rough-hewed beauty of steam locomotives, scream for a time when things weren’t necessarily more simple, but were more graspable.
Riecken’s photos take us back to a time when things took a little more care to get going, when you had to break in a pair of shoes or jeans, or stoke the fire in the boiler of a steam locomotive so it would move. Her photos are nostalgic for a time when we valued what it took to make things work — not necessarily quickly, but well.
A lot of the things we do nowadays still take a lot of time and effort. But think about how much effort was put then into a paltry 45-minute train ride. According to Riecken, the steam locomotives at the Strasbourg Railroad in Ronks, Pa., require a half-ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water for such a trip. No quick keystrokes on a computer get those things moving — it takes a lot of sweat equity.
While there is a deep appreciation for the surface quality of the locomotives and the effort involved in making them run, Riecken’s photos also touch on something far deeper than that. Yes, they are a celebration of the beauty of those things long gone, but she derives her inspiration from her own wish to make sense of her place in the world and to grapple with questions of, as she told In Sight, “time and the infinity of space.”
Life is a journey for all of us. Riecken’s journey has been propelled by the questions above, and, she says, “These thoughts have become a lifelong infatuation, one that keeps my mind busy searching for answers, to ward off the fear of time running out, or death.”
Riecken’s photographic journey has been taking place, professionally at least, since around 1991. Many things have inspired her along the way, but she has always been drawn to “older things.” And that isn’t just bound to steam locomotives. She takes inspiration from design, fashion, music and art that are rooted in the beginnings of the 20th century, going up to the 1960s.
With this project, Riecken hopes her images have helped to create a sense of timelessness and that they impart her belief that: “our past and what we created and built in the past are important to conserve in order to remember, feel, connect to and understand.
“That technology has advanced so radically fast in such a short time and that … threatens our connection with who we are … The beautiful things we designed and built and worked on WITH OUR HANDS — all of this is being replaced by technologies only a few know about and understand … We are becoming what we are doing for work — empty vessels, half human, half machine … My work intends to stop this all for a moment, to offer a break to connect with beauty and light and our past.”
We’re all so caught up in clicks, push notifications, likes and all sorts of other noise, who can really disagree?
Riecken is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post. She is also an adjunct professional lecturer at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and American University’s School of Communication. You can see more of her work on her website, here.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.