Crash fan Robert Carroll Reed celebrates the transformed machine.
Robert Carroll Reed has lived on a quiet, tree-lined street in Old Town Alexandria for more than 20 years. A friendly, animated man in his early 60s, he owns a small, immaculately kept mid-19th-century house that is on the Historic Alexandria Foundation’s Early Buildings Survey. He greets me wearing a pale yellow button-down shirt, a tan wide-wale corduroy jacket, khakis, penny loafers, and round glasses with tortoiseshell rims. He teaches English at nearby Marymount University and serves as architecture critic for the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has written books about streamlined design and New York City’s elevated trains, and has collaborated on a title of local interest, Old Washington, D.C., in Early Photographs, 1846-1932.
None of which gives any inkling as to why I’ve come to talk to him on a sunny Tuesday morning in late March. I’m here because Reed also has a thing for crashes, because he researches and compiles picture books of hundreds of horrific, farcical, bizarre, and often beautiful wrecks. Schiffer Publishing (www.schifferbooks.com) has three Reed titles in its catalog: Train Wrecks: A Pictorial History of Accidents on the Main Line, originally published in 1968 and reprinted four years ago, was joined last year by Smashups: The Hazard of Travel and Crash! Travel Mishaps and Calamities.
Somewhere between the insurance-info exchange of a mundane fender bender and the pulverizing devastation of a commercial air disaster, Reed seeks his grail. “There are a jillion, trillion photographs of accidents. Most of them are boring. I try to find the best ones,” he says. “Some wrecks are not as interesting as others. Plane wrecks—usually there’s nothing left. They’re not very interesting. Sometimes you can see it intact. Car wrecks, train wrecks—there’s still enough to see.”
Reed doesn’t crave carnage. He’s an entertainer, not a ghoul. And he thinks the public’s tastes are more in line with his than a lot of people care to admit. In fact, he knows so. The gothic tinge of some of Train Wrecks’ 19th-century engravings hasn’t prevented the book from selling 134,000 copies: “I tried to keep dead bodies away, but in the era before photographs could be reproduced in magazines, we had to use drawings, and those artists, of course, loved to put the dead bodies in. And it was sensational—train wrecks were sensational! There were lots of them in the 19th century. But still nobody has accused me or accused that book of being grim, horrible, ever. They usually smile.”
Train Wrecks carries an undercurrent of Victorian precedent for what we mistakenly assume to be late-20th-century depravity. Perhaps Fox’s reality-TV gurus wouldn’t have been bullied into nixing an orchestrated crash of an unmanned jetliner in the desert had they known of the exploits of one enterprising turn-of-the-century impresario:
One man made a business of staging head-on collisions of steam engines, mostly 4-4-0’s, all over the country. For thirty-six years “Head-On Joe” Connolly scheduled “cornfield meets” for a paid admission. Altogether he wrecked 146 locomotives in seventy-three spectacles. Sometimes he attached an old wooden coach to each engine. The coaches were saturated with gasoline, and each one contained a pot of burning charcoal. The impact upset the pots, and the coaches burst into flames. The crowds loved it.
As revealing as the history is, the pictures drive Train Wrecks. Reed’s later books nearly dispense with text altogether; their photos are assisted only by terse, matter-of-fact captions. Reed dawdled over Smashups and Crash! for 15 or 20 years, hunting down and editing pictures but remaining unsure of the commentary they warranted. His editor finally suggested that he didn’t need to say much of anything about them. Reed was attempting not to lay out a history of disaster, as he did in his first book, so much as to assemble the most striking documents of automotive, naval, and aviatorial mishaps he could find.
It’s painstaking, often thankless work, requiring Reed to battle reluctant bureaucracies at the National Archives, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Air Line Pilots Association. He could have fallen back on professional photo agencies, but, especially when he first set out on his search, it was often more productive and less expensive to buy pictures outright at antique stores and estate sales. An elderly Warrenton, Va., photographer gave Reed his entire file of wreck pictures. When Reed was negotiating with one British museum for use of some European photos, he says he resorted to “poor-mouthing all the time and writing on letterhead saying I was doing a scholarly work.”
Reed, in fact, is not interested in doing scholarly publishing, he says. “The writing’s usually bad, anyway. I love teaching literature, but…I’m not going to write about that stuff….Emily Dickinson did write a poem about a locomotive, and so did Carl Sandburg, but since they were not wrecks, I’m not particularly interested.” Aside from Louise Kraft, a photographer who helped Reed cull his findings for publication, his friends and colleagues don’t know quite what to make of his research. They seem to prefer not to talk about it.
The wreck aesthetic has a long history in visual art, from Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope, a touchstone of German Romanticism, in which a lost ship is dwarfed by the jagged peaks of ice that have crushed it, to John Chamberlain’s candy-apple quarter-panel knots, Charles Ray’s ghostly gray death car, and Nancy Rubins’ levitating twisters of airplane parts, in more recent years. Reed’s trilogy has more in common with this roster of work than with fellow populist Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, which decoratively plasters gruesome photos of joy riders’ rag-doll remains across the canvas. To Reed, it’s all about the machinery.
To look at some of Reed’s spectacularly deformed hulks, it’s impossible not to imagine a crash as a kind of slippage in time, when the supernatural inserts itself into the everyday for an instant, then disappears, leaving behind only dead, incomprehensible evidence of its transformations. It’s as if everything goes white-hot, then instantly ice-cold. Metal is turned to liquid, only to emerge, in a flash, solid, reshaped by invisible, fantastic molds. Novel materials form unearthly shapes. Rails turn to licorice, a ship’s decks to crumpled paper. The propellers on belly-flopping planes peel back like palm fronds. The crown sheet of a boiler pops hundreds of bolts and bulges in an arc like a piece of perforated rubber flooring. Massive craft assume disguises. Steam engines mount one another like beasts in rut. An airship lies like a split pinata swatted to the ground. And survivors and witnesses assume symbolic roles: Salvagers perch on the heavily listing decks of a cracked lumber schooner like whalers who have clambered atop a fresh kill, as the ship spews wooden entrails.
Though Reed chalks up a certain portion of our crash fascination to schadenfreude and suspects Freudian forces are at play in our love of bumper cars, he doesn’t venture into the sex-death intersection of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 cult novel, Crash. But, like Ballard’s self-named narrator, Reed does have precise visions of his own violent end. “No, I’ve not been in a train wreck,” he confesses, a shade of disappointment in his voice. He continues abstractedly, “But…just the other day, coming back from West Virginia, I crossed a railroad track, and I was thinking what it would be like to be struck by a train and how ironic it would be. And how I’d like it.
“If that’s the way I have to go, I would love to be killed in a train wreck…! I can just see the obit now: ‘Author of Train Wrecks Killed in Train Wreck.’ The irony is wonderful. No, I don’t want to go down in an airplane….You’re just one of many, and in a train wreck if you’re struck on a crossing, you’re going to be by yourself or having just another person [with you]….It’s a more personal kind of death. It has something special. If you go down in a plane with all those other people, they’re going to be talking about the babies and the mothers and the people who survived. Your name isn’t even going to be mentioned in the bloody wreck.”
Reed laments the scarcity of suitable grade crossings in Virginia, observing that if he were so inclined he could drive to Maryland to get closer to the heavy Northeast Corridor traffic. He isn’t one to force the issue, however. It would be unsporting to park himself in front of a bellowing locomotive like some Hollywood stooge improbably stalled on the tracks. He wants fate to place him in harm’s way, and he hopes fate has a sense of style: “I want it to be an accident,” he says. “I want the surprise of looking up there [at the train], and saying, ‘Oh my God—there is a God!’” CP