Railpicts and Creativity

Railpictures.net bills itself as the “best railroad photos on the net” and arguably is if you are looking for a single go-to source for railroad photography. It is a juried site, meaning that an image has to be accepted by one of their “screeners” before it is publically available for viewing on their site. The site has attracted a great deal of attention within the railfan and railroad photography community and thus has a sizable group of both supporters and detractors.

I have posted many images on their site over the years and still look at the site, but on an increasingly less frequent basis. I used to go there to look for creative photography, but now go primarily to size up the railroad industry that I’m so passionate about. Looking through the images, one gets to see what’s happening in terms of equipment, operations, and the physical environment.

It’s been a long while since I posted there and friends and acquaintances have asked why. I wasn’t really sure how to answer the question as I hadn’t made a conscious decision not to post there. It just gradually happened that I lost interest for several reasons, all related to content on the site.

Basically, I don’t look to Railpicts any longer as a source of inspiration. For me, there is not enough creativity and diversity in the content that has been selected by the “screeners” or editors.

While the vast majority of the shots on the site are 3/4 view “wedgies” which get accepted because they meet their technical criteria, the editors clearly have a preference for “big scenery” calendar type images, with most being from the North American West where those scenes are easier to find. Beyond that editorial preference, far too many are locomotive roster shots, technically poor historical images and the railroad photography clichés of wreaks, pretty girls, sunsets, signals at night, and charter trip images. Looking beyond the clichés, I see too many bad examples of the latest photographic gimmickry, with railfans jumping into strobe and drone photography without the slightest clue on how to use them to enhance their photography. I don’t have anything against either strobe or drone photography, but with the low creative standards established by the editors, they are setting the benchmark very low in these evolving creative areas.

Which brings me to my other concern about Railpicts…that they are “training” railroad photographers to see by their acceptance and editorial criteria. Based upon the fact that submissions are judged, they are perceived by many aspiring photographers to be the benchmark or standard for quality railroad photography, both on a technical and creative level.

I have no issues with their technical standards and every photographer can benefit by learning to meet these standards. While some of these standards may seem immaterial to creativity such as leveling, sharpening, etc., they do push you to improve your personal skills and standards and that is always a good thing.

Creativity is a fragile thing and by establishing hard rules on how creativity is defined, they are both turning talented creative photographers away and dumbing down railroad photography to a formula. Their creative preferences are very traditional and conservative as far as photography goes….it’s a narrow definition of what creative railroad photography can be, firmly grounded in historical precedent. This is how they can justify accepting historical images that don’t meet their own established technical requirements for new images. It also explains why they accept so many copy-cat charter trip images, as they are generally set up to mimic the railroad photography masters who shot the so-called golden era in railroading from about 1930-1960. There is nothing wrong with these traditional creative interpretations, but with a strong emphasis on a narrow range of image types, they are championing a way of seeing and representing the genre that doesn’t advance railroad photography.

To me, their editorial selections are reinforcing uniformity in the genre. For many aspiring photographers, the path to acceptance is to take the safe, conservative route rather than risk rejection for being creative. Instead of challenging creative conventions and opening minds, people are dumbing down their vision to what they believe will meet the proven selection criteria. Once they achieve success, they continue on the same worn path.

Railpictures.net is a private site so the owners (who are the editors) may do as they wish, but they have established themselves as an authoritative, highly regarded place to view quality photographs of railroads. As a standard bearer for good railroad photography, I believe they have a higher responsibility to the genre and should broaden their definition of creativity while being more selective in accepting the mundane. I admit, it’s a tough balance to strike, but maybe if they find their creative niche instead of trying to be everything to everybody, they can truly live up to their masthead of being ”the best railroad pictures on the net”!

When they figure it out, I may just start posting there again.

The lead image selected for this post illuminates some of my concerns about Railpicts. While it’s not up to my current standards, I believe it’s a strong image with a nice composition and interpretation of motion. It was a 2nd place winner in the 1998 Trains Magazine photo contest, but ironically Railpicts rejected it when I submitted it to them several years ago. It was rejected for the crop, which was considered unconventional.

2 Comments

  1. Ron Bouwhuis

    Hi Eric,

    Interesting to read your thoughts regarding railpictures.net.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that our hobby has been greatly enriched by the existence of this site and others like it that cater to photography within our niche interests — be they trains, planes, puppy dogs or whatever. Whether you’re looking for ideas for a road trip, industry news, or reference for a modelling project, they can be an invaluable resource. On those counts, I applaud the efforts of those behind these sites to create a platform for anyone to contribute, comment, or simply enjoy the view.

    As for how they impact creativity, I think it can work multiple ways: spurring some to raise their game to a new level, while in other instances breeding mimicry, or, as you say, encouraging the type of submissions that are tailor-made to win favour with the editors/screeners. Everyone who participates will have their own motivations for the approach they take — be it the simple joy of sharing and discussing, me-too-ism, or to bask in the kudos garnered by a standout image. The issue of imitation is nothing new. It’s been part of the art world for generations. How often have we seen the breakout style of an illustrator featured in Communication Arts magazine, only to see legions of copycats follow not long after — to the point that *their* not-so-original work is available for a pittance on iStock? As for the images that appear to fit the site’s ‘template’ for acceptable work, while they may form the bulk of what’s there, in most cases I don’t think that they are the ones that wind up at the top of the popularity polls. I see the standout images as the carrots that draw visitors and participants — similar to what most stock agency sites do.

    Like you, I don’t visit railpictures.net nearly as much as I once did. I pulled all of my images from there (and from railpictures.ca) a couple of years ago to focus solely on Flickr. There were two main reasons for this. First, I discovered that I had a real problem with theft, from which neither site offers any meaningful protection. I had images being lifted, their watermarks cropped out, and then either being used commercially or offered for downloading on ‘free photo’ sites. Second was the issue of screening. Simply put, these faceless individuals with unknown credentials and their inconsistent approval criteria took a lot of the fun out of participating. It just seemed stupid to actually pay for that grief. Once I stopped participating, the impetus to visit the site diminished to the point that now I go there once every two or three months or so — unless someone sends me a link to see a particular shot.

    Flickr isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, either, and along the way I learned a couple of hard lessons about posting material there. (For example, I discovered the pitfalls of tagging photos as well as how they can encourage theft.) At least the site gives me the ability to easily manage some of these problems myself, though. I like that it is a more democratic environment, meaning that what we see there isn’t ‘curated’ through any one individual’s tastes, and no one is playing for acceptance through that narrow lens. Nonetheless, imitation and the tendency toward similarity rather than disparity between ideas permeates a lot of the work on display. I don’t know how that can be avoided, given the amount of traffic that site gets and that it’s human nature to gravitate toward the familiar.

    Ron Bouwhuis

    1. Eric Williams

      Ron,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment as its good to get your thoughts.

      I completely agree with you that it’s beneficial as a whole to have Railpicts and similar niche sites available to us…they spread the word and images around to an audience that would be difficult to reach without them. This is great for us all, no matter what are specific interest is.

      Regarding Railpicts, I suppose that I’ve reached a creative maturity point where I don’t seek inspiration there, and like you, have been turned off by their approval process. That process, which has been the subject of many rants and counter-sites, needs to be refined, but that’s another discussion on to its self. As you said, people seem to want control of their own work and the ability to present it as they choose….it’s also why I like Flickr. The other big advantage of Flickr to me is that I can follow photographers that work in other genres and get inspiration from outside the railroad photography niche. Basically, I can tailor my “feed” to photographers that I admire for their work.

      Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, as the saying goes, but it isn’t the path to creativity or inspiration. I think the owners of Railpicts are on cruise control and are not adapting as the web and photography viewing sites continue to evolve. It only matters to me as I think Railpicts has established a position of authority within the genre and they are not using it responsibly to encourage creative thinking. It’s a shame as they have a large viewer base of interested young photographers who could benefit from the many experienced and talented photographers that have left the site. If they follow their current direction, they will become just a proving ground for newbie photographers that reach a creative plateau, and then move on as so many of us have done.

      Eric

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.