At its very core, railroading is and always has been about connecting people. Whether it’s the conveyance of travelers from point A to point B or commercial goods from seller to buyer, serving people is the common link in all of railroading. It’s easy to spend time trackside and witness the locomotives, rolling stock, tracks, signals, buildings, etc., but when distilled down to its very essence, railroading is a very human subject to photograph.
Lull on CN’s Rivers Sub west of Portage la Prairie, 1984
I brought my camera, look at me,
While trackside, not a train I see.
Does that deter me? No, not I,
What’s that, grey ballast that I spy?
A groundhog brown, geese flying by?
Images to my camera card now fly.
When I get home, downcast and sad,
My NoTrophy photos don’t look half-bad!
NoTrophy, (a short form of No TRain photOgraPHY) is a recognized trackside syndrome characterized by train photography completely unfettered by trains. Don't worry, it happens to everyone at some point. If it lasts more than four hours, don't consult your doctor. Just go home and come back tomorrow. I have decided to present some of my best NoTrophy photography (or if you prefer, my worst railfanning photography) with poetry. I'm proud of the photos, I'm just not proud I had to take them...oh, the bleak and desperate futility of NoTrophy!
What remains of the abandoned Bluestone Branch sits quietly above its namesake river as the buzz of cicadas fills the brisk fall air. Through the fog, the sound of a pair of General Electric locomotives interrupts the tranquil setting as they work downgrade through Coopers, West Virginia.
Two-hundred-seventy miles northwest in Columbus, Ohio, the whirring of dynamic brakes grows louder as headlights from around the curve cast light on the rails ahead. At street level, hockey fans are celebrating the home team’s win, oblivious to the train entering the scene below. Before the train ducks beneath the road, the crew sounds the horn, startling the people above.
While these scenes are miles apart — in distance and environment — they both show the diverse landscapes that railroads travel through across the country.
Capturing the entirety of these scenes is important to me as a photographer. Looking beyond the tracks allows me to use elements from the surroundings to complete the composition.
One of my favorite techniques is making the train seem almost as though it’s an afterthought, by using the composition to lead the viewer’s eye through the scene.
Another important aspect is connecting railroads to local infrastructure and landmarks, making the viewer feel as if they are part of the story. Whether it be bridges, buildings or grain elevators, these elements make each location unique. They tell individual tales and express the contributions that railroads have made to their communities.
In our ever-changing world, it’s important to capture these moments in time through photographs. Trains have not only had a historical impact on our society, but they will continue to carry significance in the future.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 May – Photograph and text Copyright 2016
See more of Christopher’s work at Fine Art Photography by Christopher May
Place in Photography
“Place conspires with the artist. We are surrounded by our own story, we live and move in it. It is through place that we put out roots.” - Eudora Welty This photo was taken by a member of my family around 1936. That is my grandfather in the middle with his hat on his knee. My mother is the blond-headed girl on the left, half in and half out of the frame. It would be another ten years before she would marry and I would come along. Unlike so many family photographs that fill the frame with a person, this picture reveals the spirit of a place, and that is what makes this old photo special to me. The people in the photo are in context. Their life and the place where they lived it are visible. I knew this place. I remember sleeping in the attic room behind the dormer windows above the porch, and the rain on the tin roof. The best photographs come when the photographer makes a connection to a place and responds to it. For us railroad photographers, that may mean backing up a bit to see the broader context, or going deeper to uncover the history and meaning of a place. This came to mind recently while reading about two multiple-year photography projects. Michael Froio wrote about his Pennsylvania Railroad project, From the Mainline, in an article which we published (here) on The Trackside Photographer last week . He writes:“My goal when I set out was to satisfy a curiosity, but what I think I have done is expand my use of photography to become part of a larger idea interpreting the social, industrial and railroad history in a creative and accessible way.” And in the latest issue of Railroad Heritage, the quarterly journal of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, Marc A Entze writes about his experience photographing an small Idaho short line over the course of a decade. In “To Fully Photograph a Place” (pp18-39) he tells how his experience with the railroad deepened over the years as his photography went beyond beautiful railroad scenery to find the soul of the place and the people who lived and worked there. The railroad is now gone. My grandparents died in 1963 and their house was sold. A few years later, it burned down. Their place survives in a single photograph. I wish there were more. Edd Fuller, Editor Your thoughts and comments are welcome
This project’s title, From the Mainline, came to me since I began traveling throughout the Northeast exploring what survives and what developed as a result of the presence of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The project is the culmination of four distinct interests and their interaction: geography, history, architecture, and a life-long love of railroads. Among other reasons, I chose the Pennsylvania Railroad to satisfy a simple question; “Why would a company consider itself the Standard Railroad of the World?” I am sure many would argue that it was just plain arrogance, but that answer was not good enough. Starting in 2007 I set out to better understand the former PRR system by examining the various aspects of the railroad to create a cohesive survey of the railroad, its defining attributes and the landscape through which it traveled.
There are several concise topics that combine to create a holistic understanding of a railroad network and its effects on its surroundings. This approach can help one to identify the unique characteristics of any railroad corridor but specifically those that refer to the Pennsy.
Unlike the railroads born of the United States’ westward expansion, the Pennsy was built and prospered in the established northeastern region. Much of the original route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh followed a private rail line that was part of the Main Line of Public Works (MLPW), a combination canal and rail system that ultimately failed. In 1854 the PRR bought the MLPW, and later the canals were filled in. Forges, mines, and transportation centers had formed around the canals, but flourished after the arrival of the railroad. Highlighting this history of the neighboring landscape was important to establish the visual identity of a very distinct topography.
Over this topography, the railroad traveled through a landscape both remote and civilized, but the physical plant itself is a unique engineered landscape, often identifiable by vernacular attributes specific to the railroad that constructed it.
The right-of-way is perhaps the most recognizable attribute of the railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad was a two-to-six-track wide main line that cut across the land on a highly engineered corridor largely separated from the outside world. A result of years of refinement, this infrastructure allowed the PRR to move countless trains using traffic management systems that enabled fluid operation of both freight and passenger traffic within shared track space. Linking towns, cities and industry, the right-of-way of the Pennsylvania Railroad is immediately recognizable and stands out among its peers due to its sheer magnitude. East of Harrisburg, the towering poles and tethers of wires for the electric traction system further define the right of way and has distinction as the only surviving long-distance electrified mainline in the United States.
The right-of-way supported transportation networks vital to the public and industry. An extensive passenger network moved people on long distance, regional, and commuter trains from stations that ranged from monumental metropolitan gateways to a simple frame structure. It was also the supply chain for industry, connecting line side mining, manufacturing, steel production, and deep-water ports. Most of the freight was moved on the Low Grade, a freight bypass built between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. This route was a testament to the PRR’s engineering prowess and a final piece of the railroad’s massive system-wide improvements at the turn of the 20th Century that would make the railroad worthy of the title, Standard Railroad of the World.
The railroad corridor is an assemblage of engineering feats used to manage high volumes of traffic, setting it apart from other railroads of the era. Ranging from bridge construction, the massive flying junction, the interlocking technologies that controlled them and the electrified rail network east of Harrisburg, the PRR spared no expense to improve efficiency and capacity. Fortunately, surviving elements provide insight on how the railroad functioned, including the many stationary and movable bridges, terminals, and extensive interlockings throughout the system.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of documenting a railroad that has been gone for more than 45 years is envisioning what was lost in order to understand how the original network worked. Whether a result of recent or ancient railroad history, it is the archeological aspect of this project that requires the most imagination to complete the puzzle that was the mainline network. There was considerable abandonment and change after the fallout of Penn Central and the creation of Conrail and Amtrak which forever changed the railroad landscape and operations. As a result, defining attributes like the Low Grade and many of the interlocking towers and stations were abandoned, eliminating evidence of the larger unified system.
Research is the element that ties everything together: the stories, history, triumphs and failures behind the surviving objects and places. Utilizing historical photographs and maps adds a layer of context to the contemporary images, something that was absent in my earlier work. Understanding the historical significance gives me a better perspective of a place before I visit and allows me to create more informed images. Putting together my findings, and sharing information fuels the creative process. This element in the Mainline project allows me to expand the reach of my audience beyond the rail community, connecting with the casual observer, historian, architect, and engineer alike.
My goal when I set out was to satisfy a curiosity, but what I think I have done is expand my use of photography to become part of a larger idea interpreting the social, industrial and railroad history in a creative and accessible way. As this project continues I start to ask the question, was the PRR the Standard or the exception in the railroad world, doing things differently literally from the ground up? When will it be done? I don’t really know. I just know railroads have been a life long interest, and it’s nice to combine it with my creative work. I hope that my approach to railroad photography will inspire others to explore and understand their favorite railroad differently the next time they are out on the main or even a branch line operation.
The Trackside Photographer is pleased to present a gallery displaying 40 images from Michael's project. Click here to view the gallery, or go to the Galleries menu at the top of the page.