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Train travelers on personal journeys in McNair Evans’ photos

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“In Search of Great Men” at City Hall is a exhibition of evocative photos of people on trains taken by McNair Evans. (Courtesy McNair Evans/S.F. Arts Commission)
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McNair Evans photographs people and landscapes affected by modernization, both realistically and poetically capturing stories of hardship and hope. For his latest project, he has ridden the rails and collaborated with fellow passengers on a comprehensive collection of pictures of American journeys.

Presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission and titled “In Search of Great Men,” the exhibition runs through Nov. 18 at San Francisco City Hall.

The exhibit contains about 100 pictures shot by the locally based Evans, a Guggenheim Fellow who went on biannual two-week Amtrak trips over a three-year period (a “public artist residency,” he calls it).

On the trains, he met other riders, earned their trust and photographed them and their surrounding environments.
Accompanying some of the images are handwritten pages from journals Evans asked his subjects to write. The text, which describes where the people are going and why, adds satisfying detail.

The subjects are a diverse bunch with unique, universal and often moving stories to share.

Nearly all are traveling to enrich their lives or better themselves, often for their children’s sake. Some hope to establish or renew meaningful connections.

Some are dealing with what Evans, during Friday’s opening tour, called the “conflict between the idealized self and the real self.”

Twenty-year-old Keri is traveling to meet her family for the first time. “I have no idea what they look like,” she writes in her journal. “All I can say is how nervous I am.”

In an image that proved aesthetically and emotionally popular on Friday, a young mother gently interacts with a small child wearing red tennis shoes.

Two people converse across a table in a darkened Hopperesque image demonstrating the artist’s flair for lighting.

Another photo features a young man with a mass of hair who has told Evans he has been in trouble for possessing illegal substances. Evans wonders if the teen has been assuming a persona inspired by the book he’s been reading: William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”

Elsewhere, people curl up under blankets, talk on cell phones, and gaze out windows and engage in the self-reflection slow travel makes possible.

On one level, the exhibition is an ode to the passenger rail system, which, as shown by Evans, looks sadly underfunded. (Sleek-sounding train names such as California Zephyr and Silver Star prove a bit misleading.)
Exterior landscapes feature natural splendor and social depression.

The exhibition’s title is inspired by a quote from 20th-century Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Greatness is not in where we stand but in what direction we are moving.”


IF YOU GO

In Search of Great Men
Presented by San Francisco Arts Commission
Where: San Francisco City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F.
When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; closes Nov. 18
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 252-2100, www.sfartscommission.org

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