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?