Book Review: Platform 10 by Didi S. Gilson

Didi S. Gilson is a writer and photographer based in New South Wales, Australia.

Read this trio of words: TRAVEL BY TRAIN… and then shut your eyes for just a moment.  What’s that fleeting image you see from beneath your closed lids? If you’re like many people, it won’t involve the pragmatic difficulties of getting from one place to another, but perhaps a more romantic notion, an idyll of the endeavour. Historically, there is a precedent for that.

In both stills and cinema, photography has been entwined, to the point of myth, with the exotic flair of travel by train. Sure, it takes longer to clickety-clack the tracks to your destination than flying might, but getting there via the scenic route as we did in days past, allows you to experience more of where you’re going while you’re getting there. Perhaps half the fun, as some would say.

Indebted to those advertisers of yesteryear, or photographers like O. Winston Link, whose photos of the last days of the Norfolk and Western steam locomotives, Rammy Narula’s luscious book “Platform 10” belongs to this same notion of transportation as a vehicle of ethereal beauty and light. Link’s work, like Walker Evans’ surreptitious study, “Many Are Called”, was in the classic black and white film stock of our bygone era. However, another legendary photo project, Bruce Davidson’s “SUBWAY” of 1970s New York, might be closer to Narula’s own particular attention to colour and candid camera exploration.

Those three important photo essays are the gauge by which I believe any book of this nature must be measured. “Platform 10” is worthy to be thought of in the same breath as these iconic giants of the genre. Absorbing and well edited, the book released by cool new kid on the photo publishing block, Peanut Press, is a perfect fit. The book’s dimensions are not so slight as to feel small; with twenty-nine photos you can peruse its pages quite easily in one sitting. Don’t stop there though. It’s a book you can return to again and again, immersing, noticing deeper perceptions with every subsequent viewing. 

Since we have only sights; no sounds, no smells, the images must touch us with sensitivity, perhaps evoking a melancholy meeting at the junction of inside-out and atmosphere. Narula teases both brilliant and subtle snippets through shade, smoke and sunlight -- via water spray, droplets and vapor. Fluid washes of soon-to-be passengers, strangers together and alone in contemplation, amongst rail staff already on the job.

Even in this most mundane milieu, alongside the quotidian human traffic, impressive magic is observable. These aren’t well-to-do travelers anxious for their getaway experience. They are like us; students, friends or families and coupled pairs, everyday laborers and homemakers. In “Platform 10” they rise above their station, and the visual music was conducted by a very good eye.

Although it was photographed over six months at the exact same location, an engrossing, underlying narrative emerges on the identical section at the Bangkok Train Station (Hua Lamphong). It seems timely at that precise juncture there’s a sublime, on-schedule, coordinated rain or shine photo opportunity; when intriguing split-seconds are cast larger, simultaneously more precious to see and savor. That’s what drove Narula to consistently return and it’s also what drives this visual locomotive.  

Still, it doesn’t read like a variation of “Groundhog Day,” instead, since there are so many discerning, alternative events, remarkable slices of lives being lived, and for our looking, they come across as a pocket of plentitude. Impressive and canny at every turn, the engine that propels this photo essay is shrewdly that symbolic train, but viewers never really board any car to peek inside (but once); we don't ride with this machinery and it's merely seen as backdrop. However that humble rumbling connection remains constant.

Within the pages of “Platform 10”, we’re watching those in perpetual waiting, but we aren’t impatient ourselves. In a gaze uplifted, those seated or standing by and lingering present as extraordinary, even amongst everyday acts by these archetypes on hold. While impromptu and informal; Narula’s selection, a series of perhaps disconnected moments, amounts to something larger with momentum. Tell-tale signs of our humanity, of how we dress and live, how we snack and thrive. Achieving this at that one specific site and not having it seem like an exercise in monotony nor tedium is even more remarkable.

Rammy Narula has shown a clever breadth here and an exemplary minute by minute there that quietly breathes a movement on the pages. Toots a horn. I could tell you more of my enthusiasm for this project or about his topnotch skills, but you should discover it all for yourself.  If my words above aren’t enough to get you in the mood, begin with Melissa Breyer’s apt, excellent Foreword, and continue along Narula’s well-laid track in his book. Or, if you’re exceptionally lucky (which I haven’t been yet), try to catch the touring exhibition of prints. You’re sure to enjoy the journey…

-Didi S. Gilson

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