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Ferroequinology
A scene from Ferroequinology. Credit: Alex Nevill, Fifth Column Films

Ferroequinology, literally meaning the study of iron horses, is a feature-length documentary with luminous black and white cinematography, directed by Alex Nevill about the passion and artistry of railroad photography. Having made its World Premiere at Chichester Film Festival (UK) in August 2021, Ferroequinology comes Stateside for its North American Premiere at 2022 Slamdance Film Festival. The film will screen virtually from January 27-Feburary 6, 2022.

Two artists enthralled by the uncanny lure of locomotion set out on journeys across America. Andrew Cross chases freight trains through the Black Rock desert in Nevada in pursuit of a perfect landscape shot. McNair Evans travels on an Amtrak train from San Francisco to Portland, sharing stories and making portraits with fellow passengers. Desolate carriages take on an otherworldly presence and time loses its grasp in this study of photographers in motion, capturing slow travel in today’s increasingly fast-paced society.

Railroad documentaries hold a significant place in film history. From Auguste and Louis Lumière’s early experiments in The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station to the iconic John Grierson narrated Night Mail or D. A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express – the movement, machinery, infrastructure and culture surrounding railroads has fascinated filmmakers since the birth of cinema. Ferroequinology draws on this established tradition and brings this potent documentary theme into focus for the contemporary era.

Nevill became interested in railroad photography when visiting his hometown in the south of England. Returning via train for the first time in a few years, he noticed rail enthusiasts armed with cameras and binoculars lurking at the edge of the station platform. The apparent serenity of these people (largely elderly men) fascinated him as they slowly observed trains. “I found a funny parallel with my own work as a cinematographer in which I am also stuck behind a lens, often obsessing over details of the frame and sometimes waiting hours on end for the perfect light conditions,” said Nevill.

As Nevill explored this world in more detail, the people he encountered and the images they created far surpassed a simple hobbyist caricature. He was drawn in by the technically challenging and at times innovative nature of railroad photography. Gravitating toward collaborators with particularly artistic sensibilities, he set about filming in ways that engaged directly with their creative work. Shooting in black and white helped to distance the film’s cinematography from each character’s photographic project and reflected the romanticized gaze many of these enthusiasts brought to their images as well as their often sentimental relationship with railroads.

Watch the trailer for Ferroequinology.

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