Like most Amtrak passengers, McNair Evans took notice of the pastoral landscapes fleeing past his train window, as well as the distinctive eccentricities of his fellow travelers.
Unlike his fellow passengers, the San Francisco photographer yielded a large-format camera to capture the scenery — and the people sharing quarters crisscrossing the the heart of the country.
“For me, I photograph strangers,” Evans said in his San Francisco studio. "I’m interested in that connection with people I’ve never met before."
On Friday, several years worth of those pictures and stories will go on display in the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery in City Hall — a show Evans calls “In Search of Great Men.” The exhibit features 100 photos of industrial landscapes, agrarian fields from America’s heartlands, and most prominently — the characters whose lives McNair shared for short stretches of rail travel.
“Each person that I made pictures,” Evans said, “they write their stories in the book and they talk about why they’re traveling.”
Evans got his subjects to write their own story in one of his notebooks — fleshing out the backstory details of the travelers captured in his moody photographs.
There’s the Marine veteran with a tattoo of his own uniformed profile on his leg.
There’s the part-time model/mother from Idaho who dreamed of opening her own hair salon.
There’s the Vietnam veteran whose most difficult battle was heroin addiction — and now writes poetry about his war experience.
Over three years, Evans took two-week trips each year to add more material to his collage of American train travelers. As passengers filed in and out of the trains, Evans would quietly strike up conversations, his camera often serving as the ice-breaker. His images documented travelers heading to new jobs, new lives and new loves.
“They’re looking for the hope of a new life,” McNair said, “the hope of a better life.”
McNair ended up with thousands of images captured on film — an outdated medium to capture a somewhat outdated mode of travel. For the show, he whittled them down to a 100 with the help of Ann Jastrab, the gallery director of San Francisco's Rayko Photo Studio.
“I think he’s captured a slice of America,” said Jastrab, “like a portion of America that’s fading.”
Evans describes his human subjects as collaborators on the project. He said he formed kinships, even in the brief hours their lives would intersect.
“It’s a public art residency where I eat, sleep, photograph” Evans said, “live with the people I’m interested in.”
Evans photos will hang from the long narrow corridors of City Hall’s basement gallery - with proportions he describes as appropriately similar to a train car. As he trained his sharp gaze onto a wall full of small sample images in his studio — his eyes wandered over the faces staring back.
“Regardless of all the other extraneous details,” Evans said, “we’re all out there looking for the same thing.”
Evans' show will run from April 15 to Nov. 18 in the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery in the basement of City Hall.