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.

The Coles Station Water Tank

The East Broad Top Railroad has been a treasury of industrial heritage as well as a wonderful photographic subject to me for years. While officially abandoned in 1956, a good portion of its infrastructure exists and I’m constantly surprised as I learn more about the railroad. Not long ago, Matthew Malkiewicz clued me in on a water tank still standing on the line and I put it on my list to explore and photograph.

From my research, I knew that the Coles Station water tank is located within thick woods so I wanted to seek it out during the winter months, when the leaves are down and the light is soft and diffused. A free weekend gifted me the time and off I went in search of the tank. Driving west beyond Orbisonia, I was surprised at just how much of the railroad was not only visible, but also seemingly ready to host a train. The rails were left in place when the line was abandoned 60 years ago and for the most part, have remained untouched. Seeing rail laid 36” apart through the hollows and mountains of Pennsylvania made me nostalgic for what I had missed but also made me grateful for what remained.


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.”

Left Behind in Elizabeth – The Singer Manufacturing Company, Part 1

This past November, my daughter and I found ourselves in Elizabeth, NJ searching for a soccer field, and I quickly discovered that although it’s just a few miles from my suburban home of 18 years, I knew almost nothing about the area. Passing through streets along the waterfront, I saw beautiful 19th and 20th century factory buildings that had signs of past glory, but were now generations removed from their original purpose. One such building caught my attention due to its immense size and architectural style, which intrigued me enough to seek its past once I got home.

It didn’t take much searching on the web to uncover that the building that peaked my interest was once the Singer complex, formally called the Elizabethport Works of the Singer Manufacturing Company. Having outgrown its New York City facility due to the success of their patented sewing machines, Singer sought a suitable site to start a new factory and found it across the harbor in Elizabeth. Ideally situated on the water and adjacent to the Central Railroad of New Jersey mainline, construction started in 1873 on the first buildings.

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.

Beyond the Choir

In my quest to evolve as a photographer, the past six weeks have brought some affirmation that my vision is making connections to people.

First, images that I entered into the International Photography Awards (IPA) annual competition received honorable mentions in three categories. This competition is one of the worlds largest and among its most highly regarded in the general photography world. I entered seven images in various categories (one has to choose) and was delighted to receive the recognition.

Nearing the summit of the Allegheny Mountains, a set of “helper” locomotives arrive to assist a train heading down the long steep grade into Altoona, Pennsylvania. When attached to the rear of the downhill train, they will add braking to fight gravity’s pull and allow for a controlled descent.

Icy Passage received an Honorable Mention in two categories; Fine Art Landscape and Seasonal

The basic elements of the economy of Wilbur, Washington.

Pillars of Wilbur received an award in the Architecture category

Overcoming the Elements at Orbisonia

The forecast was for heavy rain as I left my home bound for Altoona that Saturday. I had a free weekend and was going to make the best of it in spite of the weather. My plan was to be in Altoona by late afternoon as the easterly storm was clearing and hopefully catch some nice light for an ongoing photo project. With an early start on my drive, I planned to swing by the East Broad Top shops in Orbisonia along the way and see if there was anything interesting that could coax me to photograph in the rain.

Driving through central Pennsylvania, I noted that the Autumn colors were just starting to turn and that the heavy rain and clouds were producing some nice atmospheric conditions, but the rain was so heavy that I wasn’t moved to stop as I drove through the beautiful rural landscape. Arriving in Orbisonia before noon, I turned left at the only stoplight in town towards the EBT shop complex, excited to be at my initial destination.

Opportunity and Loss on the St. Maries River Railroad

Why do some changes hurt more than others?

After receiving the latest issue of Railroad Heritage, with it’s wonderful photo feature on the St. Maries River Railroad (STMA) by Marc Entze, I was awestruck and a bit saddened by the images and accompanying story. I had visited the railroad twice in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the character of the railroad with its operations and soul seemingly frozen in the 1970’s. I never got to complete the photographic story I envisioned as the branch line that defined much of the railroad was abandoned the following year, and with it the character of the railroad changed forever.

The sign says it all.