By Brian D’Ambrosio
There was a tradition in Martin Matlack’s family that when each of the four children turned 11, they were bestowed with the gift of their first camera.
Father George Matlack was a self-taught photographer and chemist who developed his own picture slides in the kitchen of the Matlack home in Los Alamos. His children aided the process, watching as colorful imagery emerged out of the makeshift darkroom. Martin’s fascination with the progression of photography took hold there.
In 1963, the Matlacks visited Grand Teton National Parkon a summer vacation. At one especially beautiful stretch, Martin, clutching the camera he had received one year earlier, got out of the car and started clicking pictures of the Colter Bay Lakeshore.
“My family was shouting at me to come (back to the car). I guess that I irritated everybody,” Martin said. “Weeks later, my dad took all the film that the kids shot and had it developed. One afternoon, he came home with a mat board of them spliced together, black and white snapshots on the panel. He gave it to me, and he said, ‘If I’d known that’s what you were doing, I would never have rushed you.’”
Those early years behind the lens fueled what would become a lifelong passion for photography and railroads. Over the decades, Martin has been featured in various local art shows and in galleries in the Cedar Crest and Santa Fe areas. Although his artistic presence was previously showcased largely among the train enthusiast niche, he later extended his reach, delighting in “street photography,” or the art of capturing people in their normal everyday element.
Martin’s keen observation of people can also be traced to an earlier time when his family would take regular trips to Nebraska to visit relatives. Their itinerary often revolved around stops at train depots and train stations. He not only was thrilledto watch the Super Chief or the El Capitan roll along the tracks, but he also was captivated by the remarkable animation of people – the hard-at-it crews, the active station agents, a mother and daughter holding hands about to board a train, and the on-the-go travelers’ expressions of joy, exhaustion, confusion, or relief. To him, the fluidity of it all was something akin to magic.
Martin’s railroad-era photography evolved to blend of his own sentimentality for the camera with his nostalgia for trains, preserving thousands of images of lost railroad stations, lines, and structures.
One New Mexico site that left an indelible mark on Martin wasthe Alvarado Hotel. The Albuquerque landmark was once a key part of the Santa Fe Railway but was demolished by the railroad in 1970.
“The station hotel wasa Fred Harvey hotel and a magnificent place,” Martin said. “It was still standing when I shot pictures in 1969. It was demolished the next spring. Even then, it was like walking back into time -huge leather couches or chairs that all had beautiful wood carving. There was magic in the air, because so many people from so many places had walked through there and left a little bit of themselves.”
Another of his photos shot in 1969 is from the railroad bridge overlooking First Street and Central Avenue. The scene is nothing short of retro-cool, featuring vintage signage, large rounded cars, minimalist architecture.
“I went back about four or five years ago and re-shot it from the very same place,” Martin said. “And it was depressing, because the intersection is just this wide open, concrete thing. There’s no personality to it. Nothing left of it.”
Indeed, Martin’s photos function as chronicle, record, and cultural history, and for that, he – and many others – are grateful.
About five years ago, a young woman recognized a photo of his in Santa Fe as depicting her grandfather’s store at First and Central in Albuquerque. The store is long gone.
Another young woman noticed that the small, ramshackle wooden house that she had grown up in appeared in one of Martin’s panoramic shots. She purchased it as a birthday present for her mother.
Martin’s photos of the Lamy Amtrak station, built in 1909, have also garnered attention as there is little that exists today of the old bunkhouses, crew structures, agent houses, water cranes, and tracks, long ago bulldozed.
“I was smart enough to never throw an image away,” Martin said. “The photos are priceless, at this point, because of history.”
Though some of Martin’s photos are in color, the bulk of his work is shot with black and white film, which he processes in-house.
“To see in color is a delight for the eye, but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul,” he said. “Black and white photography is not as in your face. Color is distracting from the subject of what you’re trying to shoot. Black and white sees everything.”
Now in his early 70s, Martin said the railroad’s charm and appeal hasn’t muted in the slightest. One of his favoritecommercial train rides is the Cumbres and Toltec trek between northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, originally constructed in 1880.
“I was a car attendant on it for its first three years of operation (in the early ‘70s), Martin said. “My wife and I still ride it every year. The rails go somewhere or they have been somewhere, and to me that’s the ever-fascinating lore of a railroad – it’s got a purpose, it’s got some place to be, it’s got business.”