A Timeless Passion

As I get older and grow wise to the world, the human side of railroading has become more evident and important to me. While at one time I solely focused on the equipment and infrastructure when I was trackside, I now try to include people in my photographs as much as I can.

In this day and age, it’s a real challenge, as much of railroading has been cut off from the public. This has been happening for quite a while now, with railroads downsizing their facilities and infrastructure, resulting in fewer places to encounter people on the railroad. The events of 9/11 have only accelerated the pace of restricting access, as well as altered corporate and governmental attitudes towards visitors with a camera. In fairness to the railroads, this is happening everywhere, driven by security and liability fears.

So, what is one to do? With access non-existent or restricted to the employees that run the railroads, how do we include people in our railroad photography? I have had to change my perspective and found several ways to do so. Tourist and museum railroads operate under the same rules and procedures as commercial railroads, but are deliberately much more accessible. Secondly, I have turned the camera around onto my own group; the train enthusiast.

A group of fans take in the sight, sounds and smell of a locomotive awaiting a spin on the turntable at Steamtown.

For me, train enthusiast or railfans are an integral part of the railroad story. Since the first train rolled down a track, the railroads have encouraged people to come trackside and look at the spectacle of their new locomotive, to celebrate the opening of a new depot or to tour their latest streamlined equipment. The railroads needed people, not only as passengers and shippers on their lines, but to gain public and community support for their business goals. Look at the current efforts that BNSF and Norfolk Southern have in engaging the public, including outright support for the railfan community. Railroads shaped public opinion from their infancy and continue today, for having the public on their side was smart business strategy. Bolstered by the railroad’s PR efforts, the railfan community keeps growing and by doing so increases its economic and social presence.

I used to exclude people from my photographs whenever I had the choice, as I found them distracting and not fitting the quasi-historic vision I had of the railroad. Over time, my point of view evolved and I now embrace the railroad enthusiasts and other people that I used to consider non-essential to the railroad. Change was slow, brought on by the viewing of historical photographs that included these people, for these images always caused me to pause and observe the photo in depth. Looking at railfans from past years, I see the same enthusiasm, body language, and group social dynamics in them that I see trackside today. The technology, fashion, and even the scene may have changed, but the obvious engagement and joy is timeless.

 

For my current project, it was this change in perspective, as well as a realization that I had already started to photograph people trackside. While it was usually an afterthought and situational, I slowly realized that I was more and more drawn to the emotions of the people around me. As I opened my mind to the possibilities, I realized that documenting them can be an interesting project onto itself and started making trips where train enthusiasts were my prime subject.

It’s hard to imagine, but the photographs we are taking today will be historical in just 20-30 years. Moving beyond that time frame, I wonder, will future generations of rail enthusiasts see a common past and shared experience 100 years from now with the railfans of today?

 

6 Comments

  1. As per usual, well said and well photographed.
    As railfans, we all start with the trains. Just the trains in our photos is what we want. In time we then go off into our specialized interests be they photography, collecting, history, or operations. If the interest is photography, we soon wish to progress from just the machine. We then begin to look for other elements. I think that at the same time as this, we mature as well and begin to realize that people are essential in telling the story.
    At first, I not only eschewed people because they would “spoil” the picture, the truth of the matter I was insecure and unskilled in the ways of incorporating and especially, interacting, with people in the scene.
    In 2009, I made my first contact with railroaders in decades. I became comfortable around them and they with me. From that time on, I actively sought them. I am very pleased with the results.
    I must admit Eric, I have several images of yours in my head that include people. So in my mind, you have been doing this for years. 🙂

    1. Eric Williams

      Dennis, photographing people well is the tougest photographic challenge there is, which is one reason we photograph the ‘things’ of railroading. To get the best people shots, have need their permission or at least their acknowledgment to shot them. That involves establishing a level of dialogue and trust with the person. This takes both practice and skill to feel comfortable and I think I’m just getting there.

      You have done a superb job with your time at Steamtown, laying the groundwork for some great people photography!

  2. Matthew Malkiewicz

    Eric,

    There are two types of railroad/people photography – candids and portraiture.

    Candids are easy. The person does not know you are taking their photo; they are natural in their space unaware of a photographer.

    Capturing a portrait is more difficult, for the subject will feel uncomfortable and immediately have their guard up, which will convey through their body language and facial expressions equaling a staged fake pose.

    I routinely practice both, making the human element a major thread in my portfolio. It has taken quite a bit of time to develop the skills and knowledge of how to approach a stranger while wanting to point a camera in their face. The key is to break the ice, work quickly and professionally, be friendly and polite, don’t fumble with communication or camera settings. I have the final shot visualized before I approach the person, so I know exactly what to do when I make contact. By then I’ve already taken my test shot, the aperture and shutter are preset, many times zone focused also.

    On my most recent photo charter, which was not railroad related, 75% of the event was portraiture. It’s really nice to have this skill set in the bag of tricks, an adrenaline rush when it all comes together so nicely.

    Keep throwing yourself out there. Be prepared to crash and burn. But eventually the keeper count percentage will increase. Nothing is better than being behind the camera experimenting. In a way its street photography, another genre which I have been diving into.

    As always, an excellent thought provoking written article; thank you!

    Matthew

    1. Eric Williams

      Matthew, thanks for pointing out that there are really two types of people photography. While I didn’t differentiate in my text, my photos are definitely candid’s or street photography.

      Candid’s are easy to obtain since we don’t need their permission, even though it helps to have their tacit acknowledgment that you are taking their photo. Portraits are for me, the top of the photographic food chain….when they are well done, you feel that you can look at an image and know something about that person. They are the hardest to do well, but the return is worth the extra effort and time needed to perfect the skill.

      I have a few projects in mind that I want to include portraits and your pointers are very much appreciated!

  3. Excellent piece Eric.
    Recently I too started capturing images of the interaction of people within this RR photography passion we all enjoy. I find great pleasure in discovering other people’s joy, excitement and elevated state of emotions while encountering different aspects of railroading. As a further means of expressing time and place- including people in one’s images fills another dimension of context- something I am just beginning to appreciate. As Matthew and Dennis elude to, if it was easy…I believe the challenge and occasional reward a great motivator to continue to press on…keep up the excellent work Eric, I look forward to your upcoming explorations!
    Todd

    1. Eric Williams

      Todd, as our vision matures, it’s easier to see what we need to complete our stories. It’s fun to take on new photographic challenges and push our comfort level!

      Looking forward to seeing your new explorations as well!

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