The Ontology of ‘Ferroequinology’

Ferroequinology Documentary Review - 2021 Alex Nevill Film

The late André Bazin once wrote that “Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.” Ferroequinology, a meditative 65-minute trip by documentarian Alex Nevill, explores the embalming of time that Bazin discusses in the 1945 essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Like the great French film critic, Nevill understands that photography doesn’t “create eternity,” but rather rescues time from its “proper corruption.” Ferroequinology is a magical piece of self-reflexive work that arguably reveals more about the filmmaker than the subjects.

Ferroequinology documents the journeys of Andrew Cross and McNair Evans, two trainspotters who travel the American West and share stories about their creative process. For Cross, a Londoner who takes landscape shots in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, it’s the “romance of the hunt” that inspires his photography. Similarly, the American Evans leaves “room for surprises” while documenting his experiences onboard an Amtrak train from San Francisco, California to Portland, Oregon. Ferroequinology brings to life “the charm of family albums” that Bazin writes about; Cross and Evans capture “the disturbing presence of lives halted” and become “freed from their destiny” through the power of an “impassive mechanic process.”

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Ferroequinology Documentary Review - 2021 Alex Nevill Film

Behind the camera, working as his own cinematographer, Nevill helps the audience engage with the photographers’ storytelling by suggesting information about their mindsets. Cross muses about “ultimate cinema” — a topic that Bazin wrote extensively about during his 40-year journey on Earth — but rarely expands on his creative concepts; however, he doesn’t necessarily need to because Nevill documents a sense of “teenage excitement” long before the British subject utters those exact words. At times, Cross seems obliged to produce a profound statement about his work, such as when he waits for a train that may not come and romanticizes its “potential.” Moments later, one of the most honest moments in Ferroequinology emerges when Cross simply says “I enjoy being here,” even though the absence of a train may be “disappointing.” From Bazin’s perspective, Nevill’s imagery could transcend above the most authentic painting, as “photography actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it.”

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Ferroequinology Documentary Review - 2021 Alex Nevill Film

When Bazin states that “Photography can even surpass art [paintings] in creative power,” he is of course referencing its potential; the anticipation of what could be. Ferroequinology celebrates the art of the tease, as Nevill and editor Nick Gibbon complement the collective conversations with moments of revelatory silence. Cross tries to explain his motivations, but he makes the most sense when the documentarian captures his aura while experiencing the great outdoors. Evans philosophizes about his Christianity, but he’s speechless when a young woman speaks about her mental health challenges and growing up in an abusive family. The interviewee briefly pauses for two reasons — one, to collect her thoughts; two, because she’s waiting for Evans to finish writing her statements in a notebook. It’s a brilliant moment of organic filmmaking in Ferroequinology that at once reflects Bazin’s “phenomenon in nature” statement while highlighting the beauty of catharsis through art.

Ferroequinology premiered in North America at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.