All Posts in “Railroad Photography”

A Look Back at the Curve

Atop Kittanning Point, one can take in the beauty of the Alleghany Mountains and envision the physical challenges this land presented to early travel and commerce across Pennsylvania.

From my vantage, I can see Logan Valley in the distance, the last relatively flat geographical feature the Pennsylvania Railroad could follow on its journey west from Harrisburg. With the easy terrain behind, the railroad now faced the Alleghany Front, rising 1000 vertical feet above the valley. These steep mountains had been a barrier for centuries as there are no natural water gaps through them, forcing the Indians to find a path that climbed over the mountains. Before me, there is an opening into the Front with a gradual climb that the Indians had established as a trail, which started in the Logan valley and passed through here. The railroad surveyors liked it as well and decided that this is where the railroad would begin its ascent of the Alleghenies. Before starting on what would be the most difficult construction of the line, the railroad established a base of operations at the foot of the hill. That would be the company town of Altoona, which now fills a good part of the far valley before me.

A diesel exhaust plume rises over Wikes Curve, a tell-tale sign that a train is making the assault on ‘the mountain’, the name giving this division by the railroaders that operate it. The train is three miles away and the foliage is thick, but I can easily follow its journey up the valley as the white diesel smoke reaches way above the treetops. The train disappears for a few minutes behind a hill and then reappears at a Millers Curve, about a mile closer to me. Headlights are now clearly visible and the exhaust plume seems to rise even higher from the protesting locomotives. A long line of freight cars follows and a second set of blueish white plumes round the curve indicating that rear pushers are straining against the weight of the train. Hidden once again by foliage, the train is not seen, but the intensifying rumble tells me it’s position as it grinds uphill. One last major curve, Scotch Run, changes the train’s direction and it is now making a final run towards Kittanning Point. It will travel another mile and a half before it gets close enough for me to make out the locomotive and car features, and by that time will fill the valley with thunder.

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.

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 Lingering Image

I’ve learned over the years not to pass up a potential image. That ‘thing’ that caught your eye will reside in your imagination like an unsolved mystery for a long time. Your eye saw something and the mind needs to resolve any doubt about whether you missed a great image. More often than not, that seen image doesn’t pan out, but if you don’t go back, you won’t know. Going back in the moment is ideal, but sometimes it takes longer.

The lead image above lingered in my mind a long time after I ‘saw’ it.

This story starts in the exploration of the Coles Station Water Tank that I wrote about here. When I finished photographing the tank, I packed up and set off on my journey home. Cruising east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my mind wandered through the day’s exploration and photography. Then it hit me…that image that I saw, but didn’t make! It was getting dark, I was tired, and knew that going back was not going to work out that evening. But the image lingered and I vowed to return.

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?

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.

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.

Seeking the Spirit of the Holidays

With Thanksgiving behind me, I would have Saturday free to photograph and wanted to capture the holiday spirit that trains have a special way of bringing out in people. The New Hope and Ivy, Black River & Western, Delaware River Railroad Excursion, and Allentown & Auburn are all within a 90 minute drive and a scan of their respective websites showed each operating a holiday themed train that weekend. Solely based upon the scenic landscape possibilities and its newcomer status, I decided that the Allentown and Auburn Railroad would be my destination for the day.

From their website, I knew that their first scheduled run of the day was at 10am from the Kutztown station. What I didn’t know was their operational plan. My assumption was that their locomotive, a vintage SW-1 switcher painted in a nice Reading Railroad influenced scheme, would overnight at the engine-house in Topton and run to Kutztown to start the scheduled excursions. While my start was a bit later than planned, I figured that the train wouldn’t get to the Kutztown station much sooner than needed and set my sights on getting to Topton to hopefully catch them running light to the station.