All Posts in “Inspiration”

Jack’s Mountain – Up the 1000 Steps

I love the aha moment…. that spark in your brain that ignites when you make a connection between what seemed to be unrelated bits of information. They’re impossible to foresee and you never know when serendipity will pull them all together. What started as a hike to check out a view, ultimately led me to deeper understanding of the East Broad Top Railroad.

After visiting the East Broad Top Railroad in Orbisonia, I usually also spend some time in Altoona, about an hour away. My travel route normally takes me north out of Orbisonia to Mount Union and then west from there. On each drive, I’ve noted a parking lot full of hikers directly west of Mount Union and after the third time, decided to look into what was going on there. A quick web search determined that the hike is called 1000 Steps and climbs to the top of Jack’s Mountain. Always on the lookout for a beautiful view, there seemed to be a few scenic vantages that offered possibilities and to my surprise, there had been a narrow-gauge railroad that worked a quarry on top. My initial and brief web search didn’t turn up much information about the railroad, but I did learn that the quarry’s workers had built the original steps as a way to get from the valley to their worksite.

Six months went by before I could make the hike and it came on the heels of a visit to the East Broad Top. Having spent a good part of the day in Orbisonia, I didn’t arrive at the 1000 Steps parking lot until 4:30 that afternoon. A quick check on my sun calculator showed that sunset would be soon…in less than 2 hours. Normally, I would hesitate to go somewhere new with so little light remaining, but I was feeling adventurous and thought I would play my luck. I packed some snacks, two flashlights, my camera gear and started up.

The dirt path out of the parking lot quickly brought me to the first stone step. Stopping to survey the hike ahead, a long path of stone steps leads the eye up the mountain. The steps are quite uniform, both in height and depth and solidly placed into the mountain side…. obviously done with considerable skill. Into the hike at about the 100th step, it struck me that this hiking trail is quite unlike any that I had experienced before. With each step, it enters my conscious that these stones have felt the presence of the quarrymen that walked up and down these steps on a daily basis. The steps came alive as I was walking back in history, to the 1950’s and beyond. Climbing higher, I came across a side trail that was cut into the mountain and filled a few small gullies. This was obviously a former railroad grade, the first of many more that can be seen. The mountainside is quite steep and it intrigued me that a railroad had crisscrossed it in so many places to reach stone that was obviously of value. There is plenty of stone visible on the surface with exposed gashes everywhere, but I had no idea of what I was looking at and what it all meant.

Someone had marked each 100th step with a permanent marker or paint. Not sure if this was meant to spur one on or be a cruel reminder on how many steps remained to be climbed, but by the time I reached step 600, my legs and cardio were really feeling the strain. To think that the quarrymen did this day-in and day-out before they even started their long and back-breaking work day was an eye-opener. Finally reached the last stone step, I looked down and it was marked 1037.

An earthen path, which was obviously another railroad grade went perpendicular to the steps. To the left, it extended slightly uphill and choose that direction as I was going to the top. A short walk on the grade led to a beautiful cut-stone building that is in remarkable shape. With a pit on the inside and cuts into the stone entrance measuring three feet apart, this had to be an engine house for the quarry railroad. I would have liked to study thus building better, but the sun was going down and wanted to be on the top for sunset, so moved on.

This former engine house is located about 700 feet up from the valley floor.

Inside the engine house built for narrow gauge locomotives.

The path hugged the hillside and offered several clear views into the valley below…one allowed me to watch a Norfolk Southern intermodal train pass through. A bit further on the trail stood a sign proclaiming “Mountaintop Quarry”. Seemingly at the top, based upon the great vantage, but later research would reveal that another quarry was a few more miles up the trail on the former roadbed. Nearby, was a piece of rail. It was light by railroad standards, maybe 40 lbs. per yard, presumably missed by the scrappers, but another piece of the puzzle.

While intrigued by what I had seen so far, I came to shoot the view and it was spectacular. Looking down at the Juniata River and Mapleton 800 feet below, the right of way of the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, now owned by the Norfolk Southern was the subject of my composition. The light was great and I just needed a train within the next 20 minutes or so before the light would give way to darkness. Luck was with me that day, as I didn’t have to wait more than five minutes before the sounds of a train working its way through the valley could be heard. The hills play tricks with one’s ears and I anxiously waited 7 to 8 minutes before the train appeared and entered Mapleton below.

A Norfolk Southern intermodal train passes eastbound through Mapleton, PA.

 

Several more trains came through after I shot the lead image.

I got my shot, but the view and light were so inspired that I stuck around to watch the last light leave the day. After photographing two more westbound trains, I packed up, took out my flashlight and retraced my steps back down. On the way, the stone engine house beckoned me to look around a bit more. Even in total darkness, this structure felt comforting and has the makings of a good place to spend an overnight on a winter hike. Making my way down the steps, several trains came through the valley and each one caused me to stop, turn off my flashlight, and absorb the familiar and comforting sounds before I continued.

The top step by flashlight.

With the historic former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in the valley and an industrial narrow-gauge railroad on Jack’s Mountain, I got into my car determined to find out more about what was seen here.

To be continued…

Crest of the Alleghenies

On leaving Altoona the traveler will observe, by the steady movement of the train, that it is feeling the power of the locomotive; and he need be scarcely be told that the strength of the iron-horse is drawing it up a grade of over ninety feet to the mile. The valley besides him appears to be sinking, and the prospective widens, while to the front new mountains spring, as if by magic, into view.

 

Kittanning Point is so named from the great Indian path or trail, between Kittanning and the valley of the Delaware, which crossed the mountain through this gorge.

The Railroad and the Art of Place, David Kahler’s New Book

My initial exposure to David’s project, The Railroad and the Art of Place, was his presentation at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (CRPA) conference in 2015. The ideas he presented took me a few months to absorb, but once I made a connection to them, was moved to write a post on my initial impressions. During David’s presentation, he showed about a dozen images and I was left wanting more, always a good sign that the work resonates with me. So when the center announced that they were publishing a book on this project, I knew that I had to get it.

As I usually do when I first receive a photo-book, I sat down with it and went through the pages one at a time to absorb the content of the material and also to appreciate the book as a physical object. I love books and always pay attention to how they are laid out, structured and printed. On my first pass, I usually don’t read any of the intros or essays and generally skip the captions as well, as my first impression is visual based.

For those not familiar with David’s project, he photographed the Norfolk Southern Pocahontas Division in West Virginia over a series of week long visits in the mid ‘90s. Instead of being trackside and capturing the railroad from the typical railfan point of view, he photographed the context of the railroad including the many little hamlets and valleys that the line traversed. His viewpoint was of the railroad being one aspect of the environment … not isolated from it. By doing so, he included much that most railfans would frame out, but more interestingly, he captured a sense of place.

Perspectives on Seeing – Other Visions of the Railroad

Generally, when we think of railroad photography, we think of it from our own perspective of one that admires and pedestalizes the many aspects of railroading. Our perception certainly defines how we see and represent trains. But, are we seeing the railroad one-dimensionally and blind to other ways of seeing that may influence our own photography?

Trains have been around for about 200 years now…long enough to have engrained themselves within our culture and society with various meanings. They represent history, travel, heritage, romance, technology, freedom, mobility, power, nostalgia…the list can go on with various connotations. These other perspectives are usually photographed differently than how we generally represent the railroad. These alternative view-points are worth considering, or at the least to have an awareness of, as we broaden our own visual literacy.

Close to how many of us portray the railroads, in aesthetic style and vision, are photographs made by the railroads themselves. Since their beginnings, railroads have hired professional commercial photographers to shoot their equipment, facilities, engineering and landscape with the end goal of persuasion. They are seeking to ‘spin’ their point of view to influence public perception, investors, or politicians to better their business position. While we tend to think of any commercial or advertising photography with a dis-taste, attempting to deceive or sell us something, much of this photography matches the vision we share of the railroad. What generally sets good commercial photography photography apart from that of a railfan, is that it attempts to tell a story that supports the marketing message of the railroad.

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?

Discovery

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.      – Marcel Proust

 

There is no greater experience to me as a photographer than discovery. It can take the form of a journey, of seeing, of creating. More often than not discovery isn’t pre-conceived and I find that unexpected revelation to bring great joy and satisfaction. Over time, I have learned to let serendipity and spontaneity be my allies in discovery, and a recent trip to Colorado was arranged to allow time for the unplanned to happen.

Every year for the past 15 or so, a small group of my friends and I head out west to ski the mountains, and this year we choose to meet in Colorado. Getting into the mountains is invigorating as I love the snow covered landscape and the crisp air of winter. Along with skiing, photographing the mountain landscape and how the railroads engage them is a draw that brings me back every year.

My flight got me into Denver 6 hours earlier than another member of my party and my initial plan was to ride the new train out of the airport and explore the line while I waited for him. By chance, a few days prior to my flight, Bryan Bechtold mentioned to me that he could arrange a meeting with Mel Patrick. Well, for anyone interested in railroad photography, Mel’s reputation is well established and he’s one of the deans of the genre. With time on my hand, that train was still taken, but now to meet Mel and spend the afternoon with him.

While Mel admittedly doesn’t shoot much anymore, he is still quite passionate about railroad photography and we spent a long afternoon discussing and reviewing pictures. Mel is a railroad photography innovator in many ways, most critically being his creative vision. He continues to use that ‘eye’, but now it’s often directed at evaluating other’s work. Whether lending organizational support to the annual CRPA contest or examining the work of early railroad photographers Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, Mel has maintained a willingness to challenge assumptions in the genre. In reviewing images with him, his sense of wonder and enthusiasm for photography and railroading is infectious, and I had to marvel at his youthful energy and ability to constantly challenge the norms of seeing.

Left Behind in Elizabeth – The Singer Manufacturing Company, Part 2

The demand for Singer’s products steadily declined after WWII for various reasons, and with it went near guaranteed employment for “Singer families”. At one time, almost every citizen in Elizabeth knew a relative, friend or neighbor that worked there. But by 1980, the company’s employee roster had shrunk to about 2,300 people, with Singer diversifying its business to the point that sewing machines were a very small part of the manufacturing operations in Elizabeth.

Singer Plant Closing: A Way of Life Ends read the headline February 19, 1982 in the New York Times

The Singer Company is closing its mammoth plant here. Moving on to a marketing strategy of more cost-effective foreign production and diversification in aerospace products, it is finished with this aging city now.

 So intertwined have their lives become – this company and city – during their 109 years together that many people here can only shake their heads and say, as Morris Finkel did, “It just doesn’t seem possible.”

 It has been more than a professional relationship, and the community now feels scorned. “Working at the Singer plant, was a way of life,” said Mr. Finkel, who was there for 44 years. “It was the natural thing for a young man coming out of high school to do. Everyone in town seems to have worked there at some point.”

Recharge

I’m not alone in the occasional need to escape our busy, hectic lives and seek a way to take a break to recharge my mind and spirit. That desire is one of the appeals of fishing and hunting to me as both bring you into a new physical and mental place that requires one to slow down and allows rejuvenation as a result. For me, a needed break is taking a long solitary hike with the reward being an opportunity for some interesting photography, usually planned around a railroad related scene.

A hike gets me into nature and awakens my senses differently than when I’m in my normal work/life routine. I become more attuned to my own senses and thoughts when I’m away from all these distractions and also benefit from the physical exertion that is required of a lengthy hike. Since most of my hikes are planned to take in a vista of an active or abandoned railroad grade, there is usually a strenuous physical component involved which allows my body to develop a flow that just keeps me going at a stead rhythm while clearing my mind of clutter. The longer I hike, the more focused on my own thoughts and presence I become.

Those Who Inspire Me – Kenneth Josephson

For me, one of the great joys in life is discovering a new source of creative inspiration.

As I have become more engaged in photography, I’m constantly broadening my photographic literacy and finding new images and photographers that I was previously unaware of. One of my resources for this information is the Lens blog of the New York Times which recently ran a post on a photographer, Kenneth Josephson, that I was unaware of and discovering his work has been a spark of inspiration.

Kenneth is a Chicago based photographer, who has had a long and interesting career, but stayed out of the lime-light and thus remained relatively unknown. The release of a major monograph of his work and a solo gallery show in New York have brought some well deserved attention to this trailblazing photographer.

During Kenneth’s career, he explored many visual concepts and ideas and was an early innovator in conceptual photography. Before anyone gets turned off by that term with its trendy high-brow and art-school associations, it plainly means photography with a concept behind it. His concepts are direct, visually interesting and have a hint of a wink to them. Many explore the medium’s constant struggle of truth and illusion and how our perceptions effect what we see. He looks at photography with the inquisitive mind of an explorer but with the eye of an artist. Like many artists, his style and work evolved over the years and there is much to be inspired from no matter what your photographic interest.