Like so many of us, my interest in railroading led to a parallel interest in photography. Not only did I have the pleasure of planning the photo, but later the images evoked powerful memories of people, places, and events I had encountered as I learned more about this fascinating industry.
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 NoTRain 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.
Click on photograph to open in viewer
Brandon Townley – Photographs Copyright 2016 Text Copyright 2016 – Brandon Townley and Taylor LaPuma
See more of Brandon’s work here.
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.
“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