It’s rare when you can easily identify a breakthrough in your artistic growth, especially soon after it happens.

In 2013, The Center for Railroad Photography and Art asked a question that really intrigued me…what is a creative railroad photograph? They posed this question in a call for entries to their annual photography award program, but they did not define creative. Creativity means something different to almost anyone you would ask, so how would I interpret creativity in terms of railroad photography?

Having looked at tens’s of thousands of railroad images in print and on the web over the years, I couldn’t define what made a creative image in the genre of railroad photography.

Images of railroads have been taken since the first steam powered locomotive was built which happened to coincided with the early development of the camera.  The camera is a mechanical device and its owner often pointed the lens towards the other celebrated mechanical device of the day, the railroad.

The mechanical equipment of a railroad to this day remains the focus of most railroad photography, whether it’s a roster shot, a standard ¾ angle wedgie or a calendar shot. I would guess that easily over 95% of all railroad photography is covered by these standard shots and there are now millions of these images and more taken each day. But the reality is that most of these shots are taken by railfans with varying degrees of camera and artistic skills and very few of these images are creative.
I have a decent collection of railroad subject and photography books and went through them to see if I could find an answer that would satisfy me as to what makes for a creative railroad photograph. Most photography in the genre is representational and not meant to be creative, which I suppose is fine as not all photographs are meant to serve the same purpose.

Not finding an easy answer within my limited library, I started to look at other genres of photography as well as painting to see if I could find a common thread on what makes an image creative. My initial problem was that I was looking for a formula for creativity and it took me a while to realize that there are no formulas which should have been obvious to me.

What finally stood out in the images that captivated me was that there was an idea that the photographer was trying to express. This gives the image intent and thus a subjective voice of the photographer or artist. This voice is usually unique and original and by definition, creative.

The components of a creative photograph are the same no matter what the subject is: composition, light, viewpoint, color, etc., but the idea of the artist is the most significant in my mind. Having this point illuminated to me was the most meaningful concept that I got out of this contest and the beginning of a new way of thinking and looking for me.

To see the results of the photography competition that started this quest, visit: Center for Railroad Photography and Art


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