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.
All too soon, my visit with Mel came to an end as is was time to gather the ski-gang and head to the mountains. I left with an appreciation of how Mel’s sense of wonder and discovery kept him invigorated and passionate about pushing creative boundaries…and hoped that I could follow his lead as I mature as a photographer.
After a few days skiing, my legs needed a break and I knew that a day out photographing was in order. Bryan and I share many of the same passions and we would leave the other two skiers at the mountain and spend the next day exploring. Before we went to sleep, Bryan and I made a mutual decision to drive from Steamboat Springs to Phippsburg, a crew base on Union Pacific’s Craig Branch, but that was as far as our plan went. Beyond that, it was all about discovery and happenstance…
Up well before dawn, we headed towards P-burg and made a few brief stops along the way as the winter light and atmosphere were wonderful for photography that morning. Nearing P-burg, we could see a distant triangle of lights that we knew signified an active locomotive and meant that there was some activity going on. For us, this was an exciting turn of luck, as we expected nothing and happened into town at just the right moment. The Craig Branch doesn’t see much traffic these days, with coal trains coming out of the mines just a few times a week. One of those increasing rare coal trains had run east down the branch the night before…right past our hotel in Steamboat, which just happened to border the tracks! As we got closer, the activity belonged to a train that we pegged as being a local with it’s varied car assortment and then received quick confirmation over the scanner as the crews talked while building the train. The local was going to Craig at the end of the branch and neither Bryan nor I knew what to expect. That impeding chase was one that excited me for the discoveries and creative possibilities that lie ahead.
For now, I watching the train crew assemble the train and looked for interesting photography angles, while working around the limitation of traveling with just a single zoom lens, whose range (24-105mm on a full-frame) wasn’t ideal for capturing the ground intensive work of a railroad crew. Working with the cards dealt me, I used close foreground objects to fill my frame and let the train and crew action be the background.
Once the train got going, it ran all the way to Craig without stopping, but we were able to set up some nice images along the way in the beautiful snow covered landscape. When the train reached Craig, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of operational procedures. We found the original Denver & Salt Lake depot still in town and surrounded by much more trackage than we imagined for such an outlier community. There was a “Y’ in front of the station and tracks crisscrossed it at multiple places to active industries. This was a revelation as I had assumed that only coal trains operated on this long and storied branch, but the scene in Craig told another story of railroading here. What also struck me is that we were observing traditional boots on the ground local switching, but this was accompanied by over 16,000 horsepower of locomotives. I suppose the combination of a long run, grades, uncertain winter conditions along with heavy cars of fracking sand warranted such horsepower.
We found plenty of interesting scenes in which to shoot the local as Craig was a goldmine of traditional industrial structures from the early to mid part of the last century. We could have spent the day documenting these scenes, but down the street we glimpsed the local backing up fast and jumped into our car to give chase. The train was backing up a long grade to the massive Craig Station electrical generating plant. While this plant sees coal trains on a regular basis, the local was delivering covered hoppers of an unknown load (I’m speculating empties to be loaded with fly-ash) which seemed like a unique opportunity operation for us to photograph.
The plant is massive, with three power units; each with a giant smokestack and cooling evaporator system. The steam and smoke blended into the winter air and created a magnificent monotone sky, balanced by the snow covered ground, was stark and beautiful. Standing on an overlooking hill waiting for the train, we studied the scene and noted huge dump trucks coming down a long dirt road that our eyes followed to a strip-mine in the far distance. Within the complex was another train, obviously a coal train, but it was dwarfed by the plant and the landscape. The scale of the scene was immense and the distance covered far, with so much to visually absorb.
I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to represent the scene before me…on one hand I’m an admirer of the railroad and physical infrastructure, but I also knew that the coal generated smoke was slowly poisoning the air we breath (this plant tops the Colorado air polluter list). Even though the environmentalist in me would normally see an ugly blight on the landscape, I saw before me a captivating and slightly surreal landscape with lovely light and atmospheric conditions. While the pollution and altered landscape could have been my portrayal of the scene, there is an equally majestic and grand quality to it as well. My vision pulled me to the latter and the processed image is more grounded in landscape photography, which gives it a bit of irony as well.
We had hopes that the local would quickly finish its work at the plant and head back into Craig as there were other vantages with the power plant that we wanted to shoot, but time caught up to us. Our skiing friends were expecting us to pick them up after the lifts closed in Steamboat and Bryan and I had to head back without a train to chase towards our home base.
The entire chase from P-burg to the Craig Station had been an illuminating journey as it was full of constant surprises and discoveries. For me, the most stimulating discovery came at the end of the line; the Craig Station power plant. The giant coal plant situated on the sparse landscape was an unexpected surprise that challenged my vision and what I wanted to convey. As a photographer, anytime you pause to re-evaluate your way of seeing is a good thing…it usually signifies growth, and that is the ultimate satisfaction and discovery.