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Saturday, December 1, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

‘Iron Horses’ : Railroad photos imbued with a painterly touch

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

They look like paintings smeared and heaped with pigment as heavily as something by Vincent Van Gogh.

But they’re not.

They’re digital photographs, mounted on canvas.

Charlene Collins Freeman’s exhibit at Union Station, “Iron Horses,” finds such rich painterly possibilities in battered, decaying railroad equipment that it really is possible, upon an initial glimpse of these archival inkjet prints, to mistake them for oils on canvas.

All the photographs in “Iron Horses” were shot in Snoqualmie in 2010.

Their color is saturated and unexpected (what’s that purple doing there?). Their peeling rust and paint look almost three-dimensional. The wooden planking of abandoned boxcars is caught so vividly by her camera that you feel you might get splinters if you were to rub your hand against the photos.

Freeman has a sharp compositional eye that pulls you into the very essence of her subject matter. She likes to work in close-up, pushing her rail-equipment imagery toward the abstract (there’s not a single shot of an entire locomotive or railcar in the show). She’s especially alert to texture. Plush moss covers a railcar’s steps. Graffiti and ferns make, respectively, human and natural inroads on an old passenger car left exposed to the elements.

Some shots are shadowy. Others glow. All of them are rich in patina, form and melancholy. Some of their three-dimensionality comes not just from the sharpness of their detail, but from the way they wrap around on their stretched-canvas frames.

Apart from the considerable merit of Freeman’s work, it’s heartening to have something — anything — making use of Union Station’s beautiful but underutilized public space. Let’s hope this is just the first in a series of exhibits there.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com