The Italian photographer Pietro Pietromarchi has traveled the world — from Eritrea to Sri Lanka, to the Carpathians, Patagonia, and Zimbabwe, and to the ends of the Gobi Desert — to capture the last breaths of a beast on the verge of extinction: steam engines.
Pietro Pietromarchi is after an emotion: that of a five-year-old who, while walking with his mother in the Dolomites, heard railroad crossing bells and saw “a fuming beast emerge from the forest, howling as it sped through the pine trees,” and the engine driver waving at him along the way. At the age of nine, when he was given a Kodak Instamatic, he returned to the scene to try to immortalize it: it was his first photograph. This picture, taken in 1974, is one of the hundred or so images of steam engines reproduced in the book Steam Power. “Steam locomotives are like living beings. It takes about eight hours to start one up and no two are alike; each has its own personality — any railroader will tell you that.”
Pietromarchi’s images in subtle shades of gray pay tribute to these iron monsters and the men who service them, past and present. “I became aware of the imminent disappearance of steam trains, and devoted all my free time to photographing them, in often unlikely, inaccessible places,” explains the photographer.
On the occasion of the publication of his book Steam Power (Editions Lienart), Pietro Pietromarchi revisits eight of these images.
Snow was coming down heavily that February morning in Vișeu de Sus, a small Romanian town north of the Carpathians. The “Mocanitza” (forestry train), one of the last narrow-gauge (760 mm) steam trains in Europe, still runs through there. The visibility is low when the trainset, pulled by locomotive number 764,469, dated 1955, leaves the station to climb up and down the valley, among its endless forests, at an altitude of 2300 to 5000 feet. We traveled all day, against a glacial wind, to cover the distance to Valea Babii.
With two passionate friends, we decided to meet in November in Wolsztyn, in the Greater Poland Voivodship. We carefully studied the railway timetables to understand the trains schedules and anticipate their heading in relation to the sun in order to maximize the chances of a good shot.
The first day, we went on the lookout for train no. 77212 from Wolsztyn to Leszno. A beautiful steam locomotive series OI49 number 59 was about to leave at 10:49 with its two, nearly empty passenger cars. We took pictures of the train at the station and then followed it by car all along its route in a crazy race: we had to find the right spot, take pictures of its passage, and then rush back to pass it, with the train running at full speed!
Hwange Colliery is the largest open-pit coal mine in Zimbabwe, and it generates more pollution than any other mining area I’ve been to. In 2017, the last steam locomotive on the African continent was still in operation there, a 1953 Garratt class 16A 611 (2-8-2+2-8-2): an exceptional engine, capable of pulling heavy trainsets on narrow, winding tracks. A few days into my stay, I had to throw away all my clothes and shoes, they were completely encrusted with noxious particles. As for my loyal Hasselblad, it was given a thorough cleaning!
Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Asmara is a fascinating city. Located 7628 feet above sea level, this former capital of Eritrea during the Italian colonization has preserved many relics of that era: Bar Vittoria, where even the keys of the cash register are still labeled in Italian lira; the fabulous Cinema Impero; the Farmacia Centrale; or the Fiat Tagliero building, a service station complete with a pair of giant wings of reinforced concrete... In late 2018, five Italian steam engines, built between the 1910 and 1930, were still operating on the Asmara–Nefasit line, which runs through amazing mountain landscapes.
In January 2017, I arrived in Bago, Myanmar, formerly Burma, just in time to watch the blessing ceremony of three steam locomotives. This was an important celebration, as the engines were being put back into service after this type of locomotive had been retired in 2008. The platform was decorated with baskets of flowers and fruit, and candles were lit in the cars. Five Buddhist monks prayed for over two hours. Perhaps it was thanks to these prayers that everything went well the following days: after ten years, the railway workers let their muscle memory take over!
Sri Lanka (2018)
The Sri Lanka Railways manage a railway network of nearly 1000 miles, distinguished by its wide gauge (1.676 mm). Since the network has remained unchanged since the country’s independence, this open-air museum is the only example in the world of Victorian-era wide gauge railway still in its original state!
The construction of the first railroad line linking the port of Colombo and the city of Kandy (Central Province), the site of intensive tea and coffee production, began in 1845. The Ceylon Government Railways worked relentlessly, sacrificing many lives to the harsh working conditions in an impenetrable jungle where railway corridors were often cut through rock. Finally, the first train pulled into the Kandy station in April 1867.
The city of Sandaoling, China, is located in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Coal is mined in underground and open-pit mines, making the air difficult to breathe. Buildings, trees, cars... everything is covered with a thin layer of black dust, which clings to clothes and skin. With the help of a “fixer,” I reached Dongbolizhan at dawn and climbed into a freight car where miners from a day shift were warming themselves around a stove. The train gets underway in a freezing wind, pulled by a JS (Jian She) series locomotive, dated to the 1980s. We crossed desolate landscapes devoid of any vegetation or any other form of life and dotted with burning slag heaps letting off fumes. The freezing temperature never get above 32ºF.
Patagonia has haunted my dreams since I was eighteen, having read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. After my first trip in 1989, I went back in 2019 to photograph the steam trains running on the “Trochita,”or the 750mm narrow-gauge rail built in the early twentieth century and now legendary. The railway operation had ceased after 1992, and only rare trips are organized for tourists. It doesn’t matter, it was a real treat, because everything is like the day it was made: the stations and all the rolling stock have been miraculously preserved! That day, we travelled 79 miles across sumptuous and utterly desolate scenery. We stopped at mile marker 51, at a small train station in the village of Manuel Choique, where I took this picture.
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