15th Sep 2018
Whilst recovering from amoebic dysentery McCurry read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), piquing his interest in the Indian Rail Network. In 1983 he subsequently undertook a five-month rail journey from the ancient Khyber Pass in Pakistan, through northern India to Chittagong in Bangladesh, and then southeast along the network built under British colonial rule. McCurry was entranced by the chaos of the stations and photographed the vast diversity of life passing through the huge transport hubs. “The station is a theatre, and everything imaginable happens on its stage”, he has said, “there is nothing the trains haven’t observed.” His photograph of the Agra Fort Station is exemplary of his preference for working in low light, when his photographs benefit from a richer palette. He photographed the station at dusk, when the domes and minarets of the Jama Masjid mosque were silhouetted against the luminous sky whilst an attendant adjusted a ventilator on top of a carriage. Shot during this ‘golden hour’, the setting sun brings a warm opulence to the scene.
McCurry recognised the steam train as a symbol of Indian national culture. He took advantage of a fortuitous moment when he was walking down the track from Agra Fort Station near the Taj Mahal: “I could see the Taj in the background of this enormous rail yard, so I waited, and suddenly they started moving these steam locomotives in front of it. You can feel the continuity between the past and the present.” The tracks in front of the Taj have since been removed, making the photograph a reminder of a time when the old world of the emperors collided with colonial industrialisation.