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?

Which gets me to the point of looking beyond railroad photography for inspiration. First, we need to understand the work that is close to our heart, but broadening that definition will be eye-opening…literally! Plainly said, a good photograph is a good photograph. Whether one is looking at a photograph of a spoon, pepper, bedroom, portrait or landscape, the basics of what works are the same and it becomes apparent as you look at more and more images. Not finding enough sources of inspiration within railroad photography and wanting to broaden my literacy, I looked towards related subjects that interest me. Starting with landscape and architectural photography, my appetite was wet, and I quickly expanded my quest as I discovered new photographers and images that pulled me into virtually every photographic genre. That I can learn from them all became quite clear to me, as ideas and concepts in one genre can easily influence another.

While images are everywhere today, I’m fond of books and here are some that influenced me over the past year. Some of these I’ve owned for a while and rediscovered with new eyes and others are new additions.

I could easily list many more, but limited myself to ten in no particular order:

1) The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski.

Szarkowski was director of MOMA’s photography department for many years and was the champion of the medium for many years. He compiled many collections that were released as MOMA books and this one is a good starting primer for anyone interested in looking at photography as an art form. His text is direct and easy to read, without art speak. He divides this book into chapters of The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point. Some of the images will surprise you.

2) The Lure of Japan’s Railways by Naotaka Hirota

After attempting to explain my approach to railroad photography to Jeff Brouws, he recommended this book. Hirota is a Japanese photographer who spent 6 months shooting railroad for the images in this book. He caught mainline and narrow-gauge steam along with the then new bullet-trains…what a time to be a photographer in Japan! His approach is often graphic, with unique compositions and framing. Often times, he places the train is in a far corner of an image, breaking many established conventions along the way. Even though this book is close to 50 years old, it’s breathtaking in it’s freshness. Highly recommended.

2) Subway by Bruce Davidson

While the images are from the gritty and tough New York of the 1970’s, they are timeless in their approach. Davidson mainly focused on the riders, but caught enough of the subways and city itself to make this book about the Subway. Frankly, I don’t like many of the images as they harken to a tough, brutal world that doesn’t align with my vision. But the images that shine are spectacular, and the book has shaped my vision and that’s what photo literacy is all about.

3) Time in New England by Paul Strand

Strand is one of my favorite photographers and the images in this book are among his best. What makes this book special is the text, which is compiled from the historic local writings of the past three centuries. With letters, newspaper articles, poems, and even sermons used to describe the spirit and flavor of the region, it offers a unique approach to telling a story. Between the text and Strand’s photos, New England soul becomes alive.

4) One Track Mind by Ted Benson.

What I like about Benson is his intimacy with his subject and ability to tell a story that is factual, but clearly from his point of view. His subjectivity is obvious, but never gets in the way of a strong story. His photographs are equal to his words, so in my mind, he is a master!

5) Penn Station, New York by Louis Stettner

Stettner is a photo-journalist that infused a strong subjective point of view in his images. These Penn Station images were shot in the late 1950’s as he was intrigued by the building, light, people, details and even the trains. Most railfans would not be satisfied with this as a ‘train book’, but it most definitely is. Discovering this body of work was eye-opening for me as I have explored a similar project, but looking at my own rail commute instead of one specific location. Stettner’s work shows me that I have much to do on my project and helps illuminate some possibilities.

6) Small Island, Big Picture; Winters of Solitude Teach an Artist to See by Alexandra de Steiguer

Alexandra is the winter caretaker of The Isle of Shoals, a group of small islands off the Maine/New Hampshire coast. Deserted in winter, she spends her alone time becoming intimate with the land and her photographs reflect the emotion and solitude of her winter home. The black and white photos are breath-taking examples of photographic artistry with perfect compositions, mood, and processing. She takes the mundane and makes it significant … how magical is that?

7) Done Honest & True, Richard Steinheimer’s Half Century of Railroad Photography by Ted Benson

There are other books on Steinheimer’s work, including the better known A Passion for Trains by Norton Publishers, but this book has something the others don’t, text by Ted Benson. As mentioned above, Ted’s story telling is sublime and through his words I feel that I know ‘Stein’. This book is based upon a series that Vintage Rails magazine ran in 1996, now complied and expanded with additional photos. Steinhimer was a photo-journalist, but had the heart and vision of an artist…he was the first photographer that showed me the potential of photography.

8) Floor of the Sky; The Great Plains by David Plowden

David is widely known to us as a railroad photographer, but he was so much more. Most of his recent published work is in compilations’ of ‘greatest hits’ on narrow, specific subjects. This book broadens my understanding of him further as a story teller and color photographer; something I don’t associate with his photography. This book tells the story of the Great Plains and was published by the Sierra Club. I like it for the clean design layout, alternating photo spreads of color and black & white photography and most importantly, it’s sense of place. While the subject is the Plains, railroads are an important aspect in it and there are half a dozen images that I would classify as railroad photographs.

9) Dirt Meridian by Andrew Moore

This book can almost be seen as a contemporary version of Floor of the Sky. It covers much of the same geographical area, but narrows the region to the land along the 100th parallel. Moore approaches the subject with a different sensibility and point of view than Plowden and it’s interesting to compare the two ways of seeing. With broad landscapes, intimate views, interiors and portraits it tells a story of this broad region and gives me a good sense of it. The photography is beautiful and his landscapes are notable for being taken from a small plane at a very low altitude.

10) Railroad Vision; Steam Era Images from the Trains Magazine Archive

This compilation edited by Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton presents some of the best images of steam railroading taken from the massive collection of Trains Magazine. Some I have seen, but the vast majority I have not and there isn’t a wasted page in this large book. Looking through this body of work, it demonstrates to me how much stronger B&W imagery is in expressing the formal and emotional side of photography. All these images have an artistic quality to them that is lacking in today’s color, journalistic style of photography. That Trains has these images in their archive is a testament to the vision of David P. Morgan, who encouraged a subjective and artistic view of photography and writing. With his support and encouragement, creative photographers and writers responded in kind. The current editors of Trains could learn much from their photographic legacy…I know I have.


  1. As always, an excellent reflection and thought-provoking commentary Eric!

    In no particular order, the five books I’m going to live on a deserted island with:

    1. “Through The Years” and “Time Passages” by John Birkinshaw. TTY is brilliant in how it starts in winter, cycles through the seasons and returns to winter again. TP captures the genre of street photography in railroad settings, and is masterfully done. Two books here, both are well worth the search to acquire. Such a cool guy to hang around with.

    2. “Rails” by Don Ball Jr. How all railroad photography, from any era, should appear. Enough said.

    3. “A Living Fossil of the Industrial Revolution 1959-2009” by Gao Luchuan. Rare in the world, the last China – the book that inspires the most, and at the same time makes me want me to walk away from it all to instead take up golf or checkers. This piece of literature is a huge driving force in my world.

    4. “People Pictures” by Chris Orwig. Just buy the book and read it, as well as watching his videos on YouTube. His visions – wow.

    5. “Steam, an Enduring Legacy” by Joel Jensen. I know I said this list in no particular order, but this is ‘the one’. The heavy shadows, contrast, extreme weather, unique angles and views, monochrome only, motion, mood, low light, night, silhouettes, candids, portraits, framing and composition, grit. And on top of the imagery his journalistic commentary perfectly matches. Many are common ground that I’ve treaded on – but none of mine look as they should…

    Thank you for the introduction to your favored artists – I have some publication research, studying, and investing to do. My above list leans heavily towards trains, it’s obvious I need to broaden my horizons.


    1. Eric Williams


      Thanks for commenting as well as adding to my visual literacy! I have the Ball and Jensen books and like the later very much. The others, I will need to look since they caught your eye… I’m sure they will be welcome additions to my library!

  2. Hi Eric

    Excellent discussion of what wide range of stimuli influence and shape our approach(es) to photography! As an architect I am continually attracted to ‘feeling’ and exploring the context that I am seeing, and am most satisfied with those images that strike an emotional chord from those engagements that last as memories of that specific time and place. I believe these moments of amazement are what drive us forward to continue to learn and experiment.

    A favorite out-of-print book of black and white images by Norman Carver is titled Form and Space in Japanese Architecture, a wonderful exploration of the ancient Shinto Budist shrines in Hokkaido, a trip I hope to make next year, by bullet train of course!

    Keep up the great work Eric!

    Regards Todd

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