Come back the front three quarter view, all is forgiven.
by Ian Cowley
We all know what we mean by a front three quarter view don’t we? Of course. ln railway photography it’s that totally unimaginative, deadly boring picture which makes up probably more than 90 percent of all railway pictures taken and has come to be shunned by all right thinking photography circles. ‘Front three quarters’, the ultimate put down in critiques in such exalted company.
But hang on, if that 90 percent figure is right, ‘Front three quarters’ must have something going for it. Perhaps it would help to see what it means first.
It’s a term which originated in portrait photography meaning something between a full face picture and a profile and, if the full face view shows 100percent of the face and the profile fifty then the three quarter makes some sense even if it’s actually more like 2/3rds of the physog which can actually be seen.
When we put these figures into the context of a train however, they cease to have much meaning. By the nature of its shape the largest proportion of a train that can be captured in a single shot is usually 50 percent or perhaps slightly higher if it is viewed from above so that the roof becomes visible at the expense of most of the side.
Much has (rightly) been made of the role of Trains magazine’s editor David P Morgan in encouraging photographers to move away from Lucius Beebe’s ‘front three quarter’ approach - to go beyond documentation into interpretation, leading to Beebe, in his 1964 book ‘Great Railroad Photography USA’ to speak of ‘the revolt against what he liked to term “miserable wedges of smoke” was spearheaded by David P Morgan, powerful and authoritative editor of Trains magazine.’ Whilst l’m not a lover of Americanisms, l have to admit that Morgan’s ‘smoking wedges’ is a far better description than front three quarters.
Whilst Beebe’s wealthy Southern background may have led him to lay down the law -‘The perfect railroad action photograph - with its rural background, its clarity of definition of all moving parts, its indication of speed through smoke and steam exhaust and its full length view of the train.’ sadly has devoted disciples to this day.
But what of the three quarter view? lt would seem that it has been re-habilitated by none other than Jeff Brouw’s who writes many of the insightful intros to those marvellous Norton books. Actually, in this case it’s an ‘afterword’ to Victor Hands’ book but no matter. Brouws admits that he rather turned his nose up at Hands’ work in the early days, dismissing it as front three quarters but later coming to realize that influential railroad historians thought the three quarter view the best thing since sliced bread (presumably because it permits more of the train to be seen than any other angle) and also that ‘whilst Hands’ approach is firmly rooted within the three quarters tradition, his photography is so much more than that. Let’s call it second generation three quarter school taken to the next level, a hybrid style using the concepts of both landscape photography (as practiced by, say, Ansel Adams) and railway photography) And when we come down to it, how many of the ftq pictures we see in ’proper’ books are what the photographer intended anyway?
Front three quarters - yah. boo. geroff!