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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why there will never be another Morant

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Nicholas Morant's Canadian Pacific as a gift.  This is an enormous book full of gorgeous photographs from Morant's personal collection and from the CP Archives.  Morant is considered the master of Canadian railway photography and it is easy to see why when you look at his work.  Despite his obvious skill, not every shot he took was perfect and the book features many images that were rejected for a variety of reasons.   It even discusses the rare occasion when an entire roll of film was ruined!

Sadly, I don't think there will ever be another Morant.  Fistly, he essentially approached CP with a proposal for his job as "Special Photographer."  True, CP was already aware of his work and they had employed him and used his shots before, but it still took a lot of chutzpah to ask CP for a tailor-made job.  Today, most railway photography is done by freelancers on tight deadlines.  Morant was often given weeks to get the best photograph possible, so it is no wonder his shots were good!  Most railway photographers have to make the most of whatever conditions present themselves.  Morant built platforms for better angles, special fittings on locomotives to get the best shot and he even had the power to stop trains at exactly the spot he wanted them for his photos.  His work took an enormous amount of planning as he often used three or four cameras on remotes to be able to get multiple exposures on different mediums while also using different angles.

Morant's work also shows us how constrained the rules of railway photography have become.  Thanks to such moderated photo sites as Railpictures.net, the definition of what is a good railway photograph has become increasingly narrow.  It's hard to find set rules in Morant's work, beyond a pleasing aesthetic of course.  The "rule of thirds" isn't always followed, not all the shots are on the sunny side of the train, some of the best photos are taken of trains going away from the camera and some of them have a noticeable degree of blur.  The fact is, Morant saw railway photography in its natural setting, never removing the train from its surroundings.  Yes, he did do roster shots, but he preferred to have the train dwarfed by its surroundings.  There is a drama in his work, mostly because the trains are part of something bigger.  You feel like you are seeing the scene as it was, not just as a train, but as a place.

Lastly, the main reason that there will never be another Morant is that the world has forgotten about still photographs.  I specialise exclusively in still images.  In fact, I deliberately bought a camera that didn't have a video mode.  But I am a dying breed.  Publicity and advertising today is full of video and moving content, not photographs.  Morant's work was powerful in an era when the still image was king.  Now, only those of us who still love the static image will truly appreciate his work and how much effort he went to for one image.

If you have a chance to look at this book, or at Morant's work in general, I would encourage you to enjoy it and learn - there are so many ideas for new photographs.

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