Two of my favorite photographers of the railroad scene are Richard Steinheimer and Jim Shaughnessy. They both sought a holistic view of the railroad scene and found interesting angles and scenes that deviated from the norm of focusing on equipment. They recognized that the equipment was just one small part of a vast economic transportation system that includes locomotives and trains, but also the right of way, infrastructure, place and most importantly people.
People operate the railroad, but are also the community that the railroad serves and operates within, whether as shippers, receivers, residents along the rails, or as travelers. These photographers saw that connection and by including it, broadened their possibilities for creative images and put heart into railroad photography.
Bringing the heart into railroad photography is one way they adding emotion and made creative connections. Another is by capturing the soul of the place.
Soul to me represents the spirit of the region or place…the sense of place. It’s what defines east from the west, urban from country, a bustling city from an isolated small town, a gritty blue-collar working community from a tidy bedroom community of commuters, etc. It’s what gives significant to a place.
It would seem like an easy task, but to establish the mood and significance of a place within a single image requires a tremendous amount of vision (and sometimes luck) as it is more than just getting the physical characteristics down. It’s capturing the attitude and “air” of a place that makes it unique and special.
As photographers, we need a balance of image types for our projects or portfolios, so don’t just aim your camera at the equipment….find the heart and soul of your railroad line as well. By doing so, our images will have more of an emotional connection to the viewer.
Excellent books about both photographers
A Passion for Trains: The Railroad Photography of Richard Steinheimer and The Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy, were written by Jeff Brouws and are still available. If you haven’t seen them, they are both a must have for anyone interested in railroad photography and a constant source of inspiration to me.