Archive for March 2017

Visual Literacy

We all think we know the significant names and images in railroad photography….but do we really? Just when I start to think that I’ve seen it all, I discover a new photographer or source to enlighten me. I’m glad that my expectations are repeatedly shattered as it shows me that railroad photography has much more depth in both history and artistry than I expected. But I wouldn’t know this, if I wasn’t on a constant quest to build my visual literacy.

Looking at images gives me a solid sense of what has been done before. This is to understand how photography, and in particular railroad photography, has evolved and grown over the years. Not only does this body of work form our photographic legacy, it gives us benchmarks to judge our own work against. Observing what works and what doesn’t becomes more obvious as you study images. Some images just seem to rise to the top and thinking through why they do, allows us to learn from them. A good photograph is more than the technical execution, it is the visual and the emotional bond that is formed between the image and the viewer.

As photographers, we need to build our literacy, much like a writer or musician need to develop theirs in order to grow. For a writer, reading the work of other writers is the key to understanding the craft and developing a personal style. A musician will be well served to look at the evolution of music in his own genre as well as others. If you are a rock-n-roll guitarist, wouldn’t you also want to understand blues, country, bluegrass, folk and even classical guitar to evolve your skill and develop your own personal style?

Resourcefulness and Pride on the Batten Kill

I’ve always had a thing for shortlines. More often than not, a shortline was created by a larger railroad spinning off a lessor used branch line as they couldn’t get the economics to work for them. Shortlines survive because they can provide a service that the bigger guys can’t or don’t want to and still make a small profit at the end of the day. They’re usually owned and run by people vested in the local community who work hard to service businesses owned by people they actually know. Without the financial resources or facilities of a large railroad, self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are essential to getting things done on a daily basis. The Batten Kill Railroad is all of these things and it was time to pay the line another visit.

Seeing the road in action can be a challenge, as they, like most shortlines schedule their train crews as traffic warrants. They service two main customers; a feed supplier and a fertilizer distributer. In Winter, the Batten Kill crews a train once or twice a week and without a fixed train schedule, I knew it would be a gamble to drive up there and find a moving train. When I got into my car that morning, I did so with the expectation that I would be shooting images of still scenes of the railroad and communities that the Batten Kill travels through. I made my peace with that and headed North.

Upon my arrival in Greenwich, Batten Kill’s base, I drove over to the station area to see if any activity was going on. As I passed by, nothing was obvious from the car. The light was nice, so I decided to park on a nearby street and walk around the area looking for images. From down the street, I spied a person walking out of the old freight station that serves as their office and towards the engine house, which sits behind it. Well at least someone is here… I thought, and hoped that person could answer the question on whether they were going to run a train that day.