“She was my champion.”

This week in Studio 360, I talk with Kurt Andersen about the lingering resonance of childhood in many artists’ work.  Over the next few days I’ll post stories that connect with this idea, and I wanted to start with a photographer whose work I fell in love with when we had him on the show: David Plowden.  He’s taken moving and resonant photographs of our American way of life as it disappears, focusing on steam trains, small towns, harbors and steel mills and the people who work there. 

David’s passion for trains began early – in fact the first picture he ever took was of a train pulling into the station in Putney, Vermont.  He was 11 years old, and had just been given a camera as a present.

 “Well the first time I went to photograph it, I got buck fever, and I handed the camera to my mother. I said, here you take it. I started to shake. The next time I went down I was steadier, and I managed to take a picture. I still have it.”

David grew up in New York City, staring out his apartment window at the boats that traveled up and down the East River.  He went to boarding school, and then to Yale – but after graduation, instead of working in an office, he went to work for the railroad.

“I rode all over the place, to the despair of my uncles and aunts and my mother’s friends, who said, ‘What’s he going to amount to? He just rides trains.’ And she said, ‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but he does. Leave him alone; he’s gathering grist for the mill.’ She was my champion.”

I think of David Plowden’s mother often as I imagine my own sons’ futures.  I hope I can be as determined as she was to grant them the time to figure out who they are.

Where do you go to gather grist for your mill?