Possibility and Probability

Here I want to contrast two images by two photographers, taken 70 years apart. By their own intention there is nothing particularly in common, but there are aspects that can be considered in parallel.

Carleton Watkins, “Cape Horn near Celilo Oregon, 1867” (http://www.carletonwatkins.org/getviewbyid.php?id=1006049)

Bill Brandt, “Halifax,1937” ( http://www.billbrandt.com/bill-brandt-archive-print-shop/sp13-halifax-1937)

Graham Clarke describes Carleton Watkins’ photograph “Cape Horn near Celilo Oregon, 1867” as ‘brooding and complex’, and in particular mentions the large amount of empty space in the image. The vast empty sky seems to signify a warning of oblivion; that to go on into this landscape is to fade to nothing. The steep rock on the right is imposing but is at least suggestive of there being something here. The railroad track leads off into the centre distance, with the whole scene suggesting a journey from a firm ‘here and now’ to a much more tentative future.

I would suggest though that as an alternative reading, the empty space suggests the idea of a greenfield site; a place where everything is open to colonisation, reinvention and reuse. The actual presence of the railway is a reminder that others have gone this way before. This is not a journey of discovery but at the same time there is plenty of opportunity to be found going forward.

Bill Brandt’s photograph “Halifax, 1937” shares some qualities with Watkin’s earlier photograph. Both feature a railway line, and both show an overcast monochrome sky. In Brandt’s image the steep rock has been replaced by buildings and chimneys. One of the chimneys is pouring out smoke to discolour and disturb the monochrome sky. The railway is now two main lines with a siding and points, and the track construction is much more robust that in Watkins image. There is far less suggestion of opportunity than in Watkins; The buildings and chimneys closing in on the landscape suggest that there is no more scope for further invention, that the future is already fixed and unchangeable.

Watkins photograph does not feature any people; apart from the railway track there is no suggestion that anyone else has passed this way. The future is open for the viewer to take control and make of it what they can. In Brandt’s photograph a group of children are running towards the camera next to the railways line. Alternatively, they could be running away from the fixed future that is already firmly mapped out for them.


Clarke, G. (1997) ‘Landscape in Photography’ In: The Photograph. Oxford History of Art (s.l.): Oxford University Press.

Generator, M. (s.d.) Halifax, 1937. At: http://www.billbrandt.com/bill-brandt-archive-print-shop/sp13-halifax-1937 (Accessed on 25 March 2019)

Watkins #456 – Cape Horn near Celilo, Columbia River, Oregon (s.d.) At: http://www.carletonwatkins.org/getviewbyid.php?id=1006049 (Accessed on 25 March 2019)

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