A Steam Powered
 Time Machine

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The coal tipple at Chama is still functional.

This past summer, while on a family vacation in Colorado, we visited the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.  As a lifelong train buff, this had been on my bucket list for a long time, and it did not disappoint!  The Cumbres and Toltec is really a museum, but it’s a living museum.  On the morning we were there, we felt as if we had stepped back to a time when the narrow gauge railroad was a thriving business.  If you get to the rail yard early, you can watch the crews getting the locomotives ready, and hooking up the trains for the day.  These are the very same preparations that would have been made almost 100 years ago.

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Railroad Findings in Colorado

As the days grew closer, the more excited I became for my Colorado photo-cation.  June 15, 2017 couldn’t come soon enough. After 9 months of waiting and trip planning, the day finally arrived!

There was a group of six of us, plus one lucky friend who lives in Colorado, ready to seek out creative photographic opportunities. I, for one, was looking for anything railroad related, plus inspirational and beautiful snow capped mountain vistas. When your mind is set to look for the subject matter at hand, it seems as though the subject matter ends up finding you. Other times, it’s all in the planning. Read more

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

Unfavorable Light

Old Signals - Towner Line near Haswell, CO - May 7th, 2016
Old Signals – Towner Line near Haswell, CO – May 7th, 2016

“There is no such thing as bad light,
just misunderstood light.”
Donald McCullin


That’s a quote I think a lot about. Like most photographers, I’m drawn to”blue hour” and “golden hour” light. It’s eye candy for us. Sometimes we get so obsessed with “good light,” though, that we ignore possibilities for other lighting situations. I find cloudy days wonderful for shooting detail shots with soft, even light. Night light (after blue hour) is made for contrasty, high drama photos. And yes, even harsh mid-day light can be useful.

This is a photograph that I took on a drive out on the plains east of my home in Pueblo, Colorado. The railroad line I’ve followed here is called the Towner Line and it’s part of the old Missouri Pacific Railroad. The line has faced some tough times lately and was poised to be abandoned and torn up. There’s an interesting legal case that may offer a reprieve, but even if that is the case, the line is still a shadow of its former self and faces many challenges.

The harsh mid-day light really called to me to tell that story. In this photo, we see the old signal with the lights and electrical components either scavenged or stolen. Colorado’s treeless plains form a background along with clouds that speak to the possibility of precipitation. What precipitation does fall will evaporate before hitting the ground and the strong winds caused by that effect will be the only hint of rain on this day. Life can be challenging on the high plains.

Had I taken this shot with the lower, warmer light of golden hour, I’m sure the result would have been more appealing aesthetically. However, I don’t think that it would have told the story that I intended it to. In the end, that’s always the most important component of any photo for me — conveying what it is that I feel when I take a photograph. In this particular instance, I’d like to think that I took a moment to understand the light as Mr. McCullin urged.

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