When Documentation
  Becomes Art

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Elevator at Sunset, Yuma, CO – January 6th, 2013

Grain elevators have fascinated me as long as I can remember. Growing up in the Midwest meant seeing these unique buildings along the tracks of even the smallest communities. Symbolic of the agrarian roots of the region, they were often the tallest and most imposing structures in farm belt towns. Along the granger railroads that I grew up with, the grain elevator was as much a fixture of the trackside infrastructure as the depot. Because of that, grain elevators have long played a role in my railroad photography—so much so that I often made an effort to photograph them even if there wasn’t a train around for miles.

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An example of incorporating an elevator into a railroad composition during my early photographic years. Kankakee, Beaverville and Southern Railroad in Beaverville, IL. Date unrecorded but in the mid to late 1990’s.

When I moved to Denver, Colorado in 2001, I was enthralled to find that the grain elevator was as prevalent on the high plains of eastern Colorado as it was back home in Illinois. Once again, I found myself taking photos of these magnificent structures. Something happened in early 2010 that really sealed my commitment to this exercise. One day while driving past Bennett, CO, I noticed that the old wooden elevator there was no more! Seeing the bare ground where the elevator had once stood hit me hard. Shortly thereafter, I decided that I really wanted to start documenting as many of Colorado’s remaining elevators as I could before other elevators suffered a similar fate.

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A large format photograph of the wood elevator and one of the concrete elevators in Bennett, CO. The wood elevator was torn down in late 2009. While shot with a large format camera, this image is pretty similar to my efforts across all photographic formats at the time. Documentary but hardly artistic. Date unrecorded but probably taken in 2007.

My initial efforts were about as documentary as a three-quarters wedge shot is of a locomotive. I tried to shoot with good light but the compositions were all similarly nondescript. They were serviceable as illustrations but hardly noteworthy in any artistic way. I think my goal at the time was merely to photograph as many as I could before they were gone. On a very cold February 18th, 2012, though, that all changed. I arrived before dawn to get morning light on the Eastlake elevator north of Denver. When I arrived, there was a really nice crescent moon just begging to be photographed. I had my tripod and quickly set-up to photograph a “blue hour” shot of the elevator, something I hadn’t tried yet. When I got home and compared that image against my more typical shot after sunrise, I was smitten by the additional grace and beauty of the moon scene as a whole. Indeed, the elevator became even more interesting to me. After that, I really started challenging myself to see elevators in new ways by looking at details, placing the elevators in the environment where they reside, incorporating vehicles and other elements into the frame, etc. These all became new photographic tools for me.

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The photograph that changed my approach to the Colorado grain elevator project. Eastlake, CO – February 18th, 2016

2012 proved to be a wonderful year for the project in another way, too. That was the year that I came across the grain elevator page of Gary Rich. Gary’s PBase page (http://www.pbase.com/grainelev) was full of information about the grain elevators of Colorado and many other states. It was also full of wonderful elevator imagery. Gary has since become a great friend and we have gone on many grain elevator photographing excursions together.

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Detail of Steel Tile Elevator, Broomfield, CO – February 25th, 2016

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” – Ansel Adams

That quote has come to embody precisely how I approach my grain elevator project now. When I take a photograph of an elevator, I’m hoping to convey exactly how these magnificent structures move me. I want the viewer to feel the same appreciation I do for them, both as beautiful buildings and as symbols of the men and women who have toiled for generations to feed the country. If I can succeed at that, the project has been worth the effort I have put into it.

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Christopher MayPhotograph and text Copyright 2016
See more of Christopher’s work at Fine Art Photography by Christopher May

Hawkston Humour

The Little Train to Dirranbandi

Noondoo grain silo #1: very quiet on this visit during a dreadful drought, 30 August 2007
Noondoo grain silo #1: very quiet on this visit during a dreadful drought, 30 August 2007

The 1,067mm (3’6″) gauge network in the Australian state of Queensland is dominated by heavy coal and mineral traffic moving from mines to ports, and some intermodal traffic heading up the coast from the capital of Brisbane. Until a few years ago though, there were some scattered remnants of trains that belonged very much to the previous century—in spirit at least.

One such service was a weekly train that ran to the south-west outpost of Dirranbandi. Built in stages starting in 1904, the line arrived at its eventual terminus in May 1913. The line was built to serve small communities in the area, and like most such lines around the world, carried out its role of bringing in the essential supplies needed for rural living, and taking out the products of the land, in this case cattle, sheep, wool and grain.  This line served a second purpose, hinted at by its early nickname of the Border Fence: to prevent this traffic from moving south to travel over the rails of the rival state of  New South Wales.

The importance of the line was declining rapidly when I travelled out that way in 2007 and 2008. General freight was virtually non-existent, but the line beyond the major grain silo at Thallon still saw a weekly freight train working out and back. The train wasn’t much to look at—a handful of vans—but still a sight worth seeing if only for its anachronistic nature, a fact acknowledged by the train’s driver who, when we got to talk at one of the stops along the way, cheerily exclaimed that it was good to see someone photographing one of Queensland Rail’s last dinosaurs.

Noondale, with its disused woolshed, plays brief host, 6 November 2008
Noondale, with its disused woolshed, plays brief host, 6 November 2008

The country out this way is pretty lonely. Large grazing stations and very little population are the order of the day, with the little train heading over the light 42 pound rail and spindly track well away from pretty much anything, apart from the endless scrub and the occasional siding with a disused woolshed. Sometimes a kangaroo or two might nonchalantly cross the line. Not far from Dirranbandi, the grain silo at Noondoo would be passed. For the line’s recent history, it was this silo that justified keeping the line open. The light track meant that grain wagons could only be partially loaded. The obvious solution was to upgrade the line, but the railway and the grain shippers couldn’t agree on who’d pay, so rail service stopped and the grain had to be trucked over to Thallon, which still happens.

Noondoo grain silo #2: decent rain saw the first good crop in years - but none of it went by rail, 6 November 2008
Noondoo grain silo #2: decent rain saw the first good crop in years – but none of it went by rail, 6 November 2008

On my first trip, Noondoo was a silo-in-waiting, with the surrounding paddocks barren of grain but a year later, after the first decent rains in years, the land was alive with activity. The railway though, played no part.

Here at Hawkston, about halfway on the very light rail, there is some evidence of human activity, with a small but quite elaborate storage box built to receive the newspapers that used to be dropped off by the passing train until quite recently. Located on the long dirt road to the grazier’s home, a stop by the train would eventually be followed by the farmer driving out to collect the newspapers.

The train to Dirranbandi passes the "station master's" accommodation at Hawkston, 6 November 2008
The train to Dirranbandi passes the “station master’s” accommodation at Hawkston, 6 November 2008

I’m not sure if there was ever what could really be described as a station at Hawkston, and it’s a pretty safe bet to say that if there was it would never have had a station master, but I liked the ironic humour of the locals, allowing such a minor item of infrastructure to take on added importance, while the train disappears into the hazy distance.

Alan ShawPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of Alan’s work on his Flickr page

Prairie Elegy

SK Imperial 1 1986

The Trackside Photographer is pleased to present a new gallery of photographs by Eric Gagnon.

Prairie Elegy documents the final days of Western Canada’s Wooden Crib Grain Elevators. These evocative pictures record a time 30 years ago  when the iconic structures were disappearing from the prairie landscape.

Eric wrote about his trip in “Wheat Filled Wonders” which we published in June. Now he generously shares 43 additional photos taken during the 1980’s as he traveled across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, following the tracks of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railroads that served the grain industry. The wooden elevators are now gone.

Prairie Elegy is listed under the Galleries menu at the top of the page, or click here to view.

Wheat-Filled Wonders

Denny, Saskatchewan
Denny, Saskatchewan

It was 30 years ago. Disembarking from VIA Rail Canada’s Super Continental in Saskatoon, I began a Saskatchewan scavenger hunt photographing Canadian classics – wooden-crib grain elevators. Driving off in my rented Chevy Cavalier, map in hand across the seemingly endless prairie, my plan was to visit 50 towns over three days, overnighting in Davidson and Rosetown. My subjects were very visible on the horizon every eight to twelve miles!

Ridpath, SK
Ridpath, Saskatchewan

Most other railfans might have chosen a more elusive quarry – Canadian National and Canadian Pacific grain pickup freights still serving a sinewy spiderweb of subdivisions. But I could already see, both literally and figuratively, the massive new concrete high-throughput elevators on the horizon. In the 10 years preceding my visit, the number of Saskatchewan’s grain elevators had already been cut in half. Time was of the essence.

Among my favourite scenes from this trip were three solitary elevators: Denny, Ridpath and Leach Siding. Lettered with elevator company names or logos and not augmented by annexes or silos, these prairie sentinels stood alone in summer’s heat and winter’s icy bite, guarding their golden harvest safely inside. Characteristically, each elevator had its own unloading shed, office and elevating equipment. Each awaited the arrival of 60-ton boxcars or 100-ton covered hoppers in ones or twos, fives or tens. Each posed politely as the sun arched in the boundless sky through morning, high noon til suppertime.

Leach Siding, Saskatchewan
Leach Siding, Saskatchewan

Now, thirty years on, I’m sharing the results with you. These three wooden-walled, wheat-filled wonders no longer stand – all systematically toppled in the name of sheer unromanticized progress.

Eric Gagnon – Photographs and text Copyright 2016

See more of Eric’s work at Trackside Treasure.