The hollowed-out eyes stare out, haunting and lost. Their faces show pain, restlessness and a certain world weariness, these paradoxical rail Transients. Glassy-eyed urchins of no fixed abode, riding freight trains to nowhere, ‘gridding’ across the United States. A slice of American life and time captured at the Los Angeles railhead by street and social documentary photographer John Free.
“Back in 1973, I did a silly thing,” Free admits on his Youtube interview (10 Year Photo Essay by John Free). “I got hooked into photographing railroad tramps in Los Angeles freight yards. I got hooked because I met one of them one day and he told me he just came in on a freight train into the LA freight yards, and then my mind started working, and I realised Los Angeles is the end of the line of all the railroads that come from the east coast.”
John Free spent ten years recording these tramps, talking to them, listening to them, and hearing their stories. Their tales of relationship break-up, of the love of alcohol and the bottle, damaged, tormented army veterans, all of them walking out into the (metaphoric and/or physical) night never to return. There were many reasons why they took to living a dangerous life riding the rails, but the Los Angeles railhead is where they all ended up.
He called the series, appropriately enough, ‘The End of the Line’ project with more than a hint of irony, admits to harbouring doubts about the project but persevered.
“I spoke with most of the tramps,” he told me. “Never asking personal questions, but always their lives were poured out to me to make me sad. I got hooked on the tramps. I moved my auto body shop down near the yards to be close to the tramps and would go there most days after or before work. My street photography has pulled me in just like the tramps did. Walking around and letting my heart find subjects to share with photographs. Never posing or arranging, but learning to be quick, and learning what is valuable to show in photographs.”
Photography, especially street photography, runs through John Free’s veins like a favourite drug, and he recalls when he was first hooked.
“I started my photography habit on Christmas Eve,1970, in Frankfurt Germany,” Free remembers. “I was bumming around Europe with my wife Wendy and her sister. We headed for Scotland, so we could visit friends and celebrate the New Year. I am not sure about the name of the little town. Maybe Dunoon or Gourock…it was on the mainland side of the Clyde. There, on New Years Day, I made one of my favourite photos of…(a).. kite flyer up on a windswept hill overlooking the Clyde.”
The ‘kite-flyer’, Free informs me later, was a man in his 20’s on Tower Hill – that IS Gourock – Scotland, New Year’s Day, 1970.
One of my favourite John Free photographs is of a little girl, back to camera, at the bow of the Staten Island ferry crossing the Hudson River on the first day of the century 01/01/2000. The photograph has a strong narrative, the first day of the year implying new beginnings. The young girl crossing the icy waters of the Hudson a metaphor for her – still to come – journey through life, where you can easily fall beneath the waves of the on rushing world or learn to survive, in whatever way you can, an often difficult journey. We also see to the right as we look – in the distance – the Statue of Liberty, a symbolic representation of the possibility of the American dream.
Born in Tarrytown, New York, John Free can reel off a surprising, and often lucrative, list of jobs that has kept his particular wolf from his particular door.
“Now renamed Sleepy Hollow,” John Free reminds us of his home town. “(It) is the same cemetery Washington Irving wrote about. I was raised in Old Saybrook Connecticut. I have had many jobs, but most of my life was spent restoring old cars for rich customers. I repaired the bodies and painted the cars for shows. I am also a voice actor and have produced character voices for the Walt Disney Company. I also restore antique wooden sailboats and do home remodelling for movie stars. I customized a car for Marvin Gaye, during the years I photographed tramps. I also did the blacksmithing work on Marvin’s new home in Hidden Hills California.”
Like his working life, his personal life has not been short on adventure. He met his wife when he was a Cabana Boy, and followed her all the way Across America from Miami to Los Angeles. They have been married 50 years!
“I just wish photographers would allow themselves to shoot from their heart, from their personal vision,” he once said on his Youtube video : Walking with John Free in the Streets.
It is a wonderful piece of sound advice from a man who should know.
John Free is an amazing Social Documentary & Street Photographer Living in Los Angeles. His photographic essays range from Railroad-Tramps to Automobile Abstracts to London and Paris Street Life.
John is now working on a long overdue book about his rail travelling tramps from his ‘End of the Line’ social documentary series.
visit his website at John Free Photography