January 28, 2011
  Union Pacific

West 7th Street, Port of Oakland

(Oakland, 2010. Image copyright Hamish Reid; click on the image for a larger version…).

I'm not sure what most people see when they look at this image printed large on my studio wall. It makes a break from the usual body shots and stuff like that — no manipulation or striving here. I'd guess most people don't look twice at it, but it's one of my favourite landscape shots of the last year or two.

I've had something like this shot in mind for years — I drive through this part of the Port of Oakland at least weekly, and the place has always fascinated me. It's pure industry, and although it's often swarming with trucks and containers and ships and trains at all hours of a typical work day (and night), most Bay Area residents have probably never seen it except from the outside, from one of the freeways or roads that snake along the perimeters. I'm guessing a lot of people who drive past it every day have no idea you can drive through the middle of it, let alone how you get there.

This particular shot was taken on West 7th heading back towards West Oakland and Downtown as you go under the main railroad lines and yards that lead into the Port. This time there was no other traffic — I just stopped the truck for a second or two, leaned out, and took a few shots with my little D300 as the Union Pacific locomotives lumbered across ahead and above me (the train was probably still slowly inching its way towards the container yards on the same overcrossing fifteen minutes later). It's a variation on a sight I see every week, but I was lucky to get the locomotives and the light and the lack of traffic all in the same time and place — that almost never happens here.

What do I like about the image? For me it's a good mixture of the abstract and the (quite literally) concrete. Some people can't see what they're seeing when they see this, if you know what I mean — it's just a bunch of shapes. And those shapes are almost all rectangles of one size or orientation or another — there's not a lot of curves in this image, but a great deal of repetition and variations on rectilinear themes. And those themes are entirely monochrome for the bottom two-thirds or so of the image, and mostly pastel-coloured in the top third. And nothing in this image is new, or unweathered, or clean — just hard-working, slightly-battered, and (probably) patched and re-patched over the years.

All of which is pretty typical for this time and place. But I also like the slight mystery of the bottom half: what are we seeing here? It's not always clear to most people that it's a road, and that it extends the road we're on, but the real mystery for most viewers is: where the hell are we? And where's the road going? I always feel a little smug and self-satisfied when I realise they don't know (and I do), and I can't help wanting to keep the mystery a mystery. But in reality, it's just a well-traveled, well-used, familiar part of Oakland for thousands of truckers, longshoremen, railroad employees… and people like me who inadvertently took the wrong turn on to West 7th (or whatever) a decade or two ago and found themselves surrounded by container cranes, ships, trucks, trains and the constant weird noise of the Port at work. Wish I could do it more justice.

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Hamish Reid is a photographer, designer, and software engineer living and working in the Jingletown district of Oakland, California. This is his full profile.

You can get hold of Hamish at xyzphotolalia at ylayalixyz dot com without the xyx's.
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Union Pacific
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