Community of Trains, Vol. 3

There has been a gap (if a seven week hiatus can be called a gap) between blogs. The truth is, around here, we've got this thing called summer.

That said, because it has been awhile; so a brief update may be in order. Let's get started.

The thought in the Community of Trains series is that our ideas relate to the environments in which we reside. We are a thought community, even when we don't always see ourselves as such.

The last blog gave an account of the hobby's progress in terms of the interplay between the NMRA and new developments in the hobby, free-mo and RPM. The NMRA was a response to an environment that needed organization, and free-mo and RPM are responses by those who would say that the bureaucracy provided by the NMRA is too constrained. in some sense, they are the product of the communities and the times in which they reside.

Where this may be the case for organizations like the NMRA, RPM and Free-mo, can this also be true for things like how we model?  I think that it can, and this blog describes how. 

That said, before we travel the path, I portend the course risks being littered with potholes and hurt feelings. In an attempt to describe trends, some may mistake my descriptions as prescriptions for what modeling should be. Please don't; they aren't. A truth that I hold to be self-evident is the freedom to be one's own modeler. This is sacrosanct. Hobbies are hobbies because we find them fulfilling. I can't imagine trying to dictate to another what fulfilling is or needs to be. So before moving forward, this paragraph is a legally binding agreement where you, the reader, foregoes any normative judgments.  Are we straight?

Okay.

So, depending on which side of my age you are standing, I am either young enough or old enough to remember John Allen's Gorre & Daphetid (pronounced Gory & Defeated). The layout was partially destroyed in a fire in 1973, and that was a quite a few years before I was born. But the reputation of the layout influenced modelers for years thereafter--and that is what I remember. I remember articles entitled "remembering the Gorre & Daphetid," and I remember a great many people who were inspired to model according to a similar aesthetic. If you aren't familiar with the Gorre & Daphetid, it is more a reverie than otherwise. It has the quality of fanciful musing. It is almost a story as much as it is a layout. And, it is a layout that exemplifies a paradigm. It is to model railroading of this period what the Arthur B. Heurtley House is to Prairie architecture. What Eddie Merckx was to 1970s cycling, or what Creed was to butt-rock. But unlike Creed, the Gorre & Daphetid is magnificent.

 

 

As great as this layout was (or is! insofar as it lives on in the memory of enthusiasts), Allen's approach to model railroading isn't lauded in the same way today like it was then. Not because it isn't impressive, but because this particular aesthetic is not currently vogue. As of today, what is "fashionable" is photo-real interpretations; this paradigm is exemplified in the work of artists like Gary Christensen and Pelle Soeeborg. These individuals (and many others) are extraordinary artists who are revealing new stanzas in the house of model railroading. We see pictures, and we question whether we see a model or the prototype. We see their artisanship, and we are inspired.  For example, look at the Soeeborg scene on his new layout, shown below.

 

If one looks at the transformation of artistic styles of Allen to Soeeborg, they are actual paradigm shifts in this hobby. These layouts are not artistically commensurable; they are fundamentally different aesthetics within the domain of artistic expression. This aesthetic goes beyond materials and tools, static grass and laser etched corn fields. Where Allen's layout is a reverie with artistic accouterments to embellish the story, Soeeborg's layout uses big space and minimalism to portray the real. These layouts are about portraying different things. 

I think that most people can accept the proposition that, insofar as model railroading is an art, there are subjective values (per my disclaimer--see above). And, I think that most people can accept the proposition that these layouts are an expression of fundamentally different artistic objectives. But, I would expect that some people would object, or at least find odd, a particular proposition that this blog forwards, i.d. that one form of expression is currently fashionable while the other isn't. This statement may offend the sensibilities of some people--regardless of which artistic camp they place themselves.

One reason there may be objections is because to say that 'a particular aesthetic is fashionable' makes that aesthetic the product of a place and a time. And (and this next part is important), it doesn't feel that way. My interests and my modeling choices are an expression that is very authentic to me, and they are in a such a way that they don't feel given to trends. Do I have this wrong?

Another reason for why there may be objections to say that 'a particular aesthetic is fashionable' is because it suggests that at some future point the same aesthetic will be unfashionable. From where we are today, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the industry moves away from this kind of realism. Isn't this what the industry has been striving for? Isn't "innovation" measured by how we create more faithful replicas of the prototypes? It is for us as a manufacturer. It is hard to think of a scenario where this trend would reverse. It would seem as though the entire hobby would need to be turned on its head. So, how would this ever change?

For the record, I don't think it will. 

There is an immense history of art. It reveals that particular aesthetics are couched in a time and a place. Art is always in a state of becoming, and there are movements. But here is an important point: these movements don't destroy the past. They take inspiration from it, and they build on it. They re-articulate. Just like jazz and blues are still alive and amazing, today is not recognized as the era of jazz and blues. So why is the artistic expression in model railroading any different? Why are there not movements that relate to time and place in model railroading and that come into and fall out of fashion too?

Its not different, and Allen and Soeeborg illustrate my point.

When Led Zeppelin created its' brand of music, it was deeply influenced by the blues. But what it created wasn't blues; it was rock n' roll. And not that anyone here would need to be reminded, but Led Zeppelin neither created blues or rock n' roll. But the talent with which it drew from one (the blues), Zeppelin created among the other some of the best music of that genre that there ever was. 

When I meet new people, I have the inclination to ask what they model. I feel like it is an important question for me professionally, and if my blogs are any indication, I have a genuine interest in the second-order answers that follow these kinds of questions. The most common answer I receive relates to proto-lancing in some variation or another. (Can proto-lancing now be a verb? Or am I getting ahead of the neologistic curve on this?)  Proto-lance is a portmanteau word. It blends the words 'prototype modeling' with 'freelance modeling.' With proto-lance, one operates within the confines of the "real" world with the exception that some variable is tweaked to create a slightly different universe. It suggests taking creative license with some particular, and in doing so, it admits that one isn't given to a model railroading free-for-all.

"I model the Southern Pacific's Siskiyou Line as if the Coos Bay branch terminated in Roseburg as it was originally intended," Joe Fugate. "I model the Western Pacific's 8th sub. Where the WP only had 7 subdivisions, the 8th subdivision is a fictional subdivision on the eastern end of the railroad," Robbie Spangler.  "I model the Allagash, which is proto-feelanced railroad but one that is placed in geographically and historically accurate locations." Mike Confalone.

To me, what this reveals is that, amid a paradigm of extraordinary accuracy, there is a healthy creative impulse for what is being done in the hobby today. We are both rock and blues, and one day in the future, we will be something else too. This creative impulse is the latent energy to re-imagine and re-articulate; it allows us the hobby to be artistic and transformative.

And, it means that there is a little John Allen in us still. 

 Blaine Hadfield


10 Responses

Luis May
Luis May

July 21, 2017

“Protolancing” is only possible when you use/renew your “modeler’s license”! Then again, as you point out, it’s YOUR layout; as long as you enjoy what you do, so what if you have a string of Tropicana reefers rolling through the Colorado Rockies! At the same time, the increased impetus on “scale fidelity” means that true freelancers like me are finding it harder to work; the classic “undecorated” locomotive or car is becoming hard to find these days. And when they are available, you have a kit with anywhere from 50-200+ parts! Will the future of model railroading be kind or even tolerant of freelancers? Time will tell.

Steve Moore
Steve Moore

July 16, 2017

Thank you for your commentary, Blaine. This is so true what you say, we want what we model to be at least believable. At the very least we want our work to be something that could have, or should have been. Thanks for your blog.

Brian Banna
Brian Banna

July 16, 2017

Proto-Lancing is GREAT! It is my favorite form of modeling. I have VERY stringent standards for a couple of railroads I have developed. Creating and developing the story is as much fun as building the models.

Thanks Blaine, this was a great read and something to give thought to. It reignited my interest in my current Proto-Lanced railroad.

Steven Howard
Steven Howard

July 16, 2017

A. ""innovation" measured by how we create more faithful replicas of the prototypes." When the majority of consumers can no longer afford “innovation”, what’s the answer?
B. " that one form of expression is currently fashionable while the other isn’t." A track heavy layout design from the 60’s is automatically sub-par because its not a tech-heavy computer controlled “railroad”. Whatever the Evil Triad of Modelling Anything (media, manufacturers and masters) decide to do is what is fashionable and correct. The average modeler isn’t asked if a $45 MSRP 3 bay hopper is worth it, or if $500 of switch machines makes your layout better. They (we) are TOLD THAT. Hence “fashionable” is what is top of the line current, according to the “Masters”.
C. In this world MONEY and INFLUENCE decide what is “fashionable” and “innovative”. Model railroading is drifting away from the ideas of “fun”, “art”, “individuality”. Look at any article, blog, or show, the only opinions, processes, and procedures that are not “HERETICAL” are follow the herd. Throw more money at it. Do what Waukesha says.
As for me and my layout, I will serve me.

Daniel R Seaman
Daniel R Seaman

July 16, 2017

Finally, a voice against Tony “It’s gotta be perfectly real to be any good” Koester!
Also, how do we get the big manufacturers to do something other than, Santa Fe, Milwaukee, NYC and Pennsy? Oh, and of course, the Ubiquitous Pacific (UP). There were many hundreds of other railroads!
The price of this stuff is skyrocketing and yet they don’t have the price margins to do Rio Grande passenger trains or any number of smaller road steam engines.

Brian Kistenmacher
Brian Kistenmacher

July 16, 2017

Blaine, you may not remember me but we met in the lounge of the Doubletree during the recent RPM meet in Collinsville. In fact, I thought you were someone else at first (who turned out not to be there this year), but I’m glad I got to meet you and tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. Your thought processes mirror mine almost exactly. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know, but I agree with your sentiments. Please keep up the good work!

Vincent Sanders
Vincent Sanders

July 16, 2017

I like how you put it, A very interesting read. I am a N scale Southern Pacific Modeler per-say. I also my model my own Railroad that interchanges with the great SP. For a lack of a better name for my RR. I used my initials. V.G.S. until I come up with something better, but not so far these past 5 years. The Valley and Grand Sierra Rail road follows SP prototype standards of the 70’s and 80’s. It makes for a more realistic feel in my mind any way. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to these blogs.

Dan Loy
Dan Loy

July 16, 2017

This is probably my favorite blog by you. Everything changes and evolves or it dies. Model Railroading is the title of a very large umbrella and there is a lot goin on underneath.

Enjoyed the Blog
Dan

Philip H
Philip H

July 16, 2017

Blaine,
I think you are headed in the right direction here. What I see as a long time N scale modeler is that the increase in prototype fidelity from modern manufacturers makes possible a broader expression of model railroading. While protolancing has a long and varied history it has always been a small niche due to the work involved. Now it’s almost second nature.

Of course prior generations will have a reminder we should head that Allen’s artistic whimsy need not be discarded and they are right about that too.

W David Doiron
W David Doiron

July 16, 2017

Well spoken. I wish I could turn a phrase that well. There is another “fashionable” element that can have a profound effect on modeling. Operation (beyond just running trains) puts demands on both the equipment and the railroad. Photo-prototypical scenes and equipment become consumable during the course of operation. The questions follow:
Do we let them degrade to some base level? Do we have the energy to repair everything as we go along? Do we have the resources to replace damaged items as we go along? Do we subject the worst offenders to flogging in the town square? The answer is and always will be, " It depends!"

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