A while back, a friend said to me that in his opinion, black and white is the color of railroading. I didn’t disagree. When we look at well known railroad photographers, most all of them worked in black and white. Richard Steinheimer, Jim Shaughnessy, Philip Hastings, O.Winston Link, David Plowden and many others produced outstanding bodies of work in black and white. In fact, there was a time that I would have said that the color of photography is black and white. Most of the great photographers that I admire worked in black and white. Of course, part of the reason for the predominance of black and white is that color came fairly late in the history of the medium.
The present is the future past. The world we live in today will soon be the past. This seems blindingly obvious, but as photographers, we often fail to recognize the significance of this concept. We fail to grasp the value of recording the day-to-day aspects of our current culture.
What got me thinking along these lines is the photograph above of Norfolk & Western locomotive 611 as it passed through Marshall, Virginia on June 5, 2016. In an attempt to make the picture “timeless,” I positioned myself to eliminate the cars, buildings, people and other reminders of the 21st century. The old mill in the background reflected the era of the locomotive. But if this photograph were to survive for 100 years, wouldn't the viewer like to see the cars, buildings and people of 2016 that surrounded this excursion train?
It is easy to look at photographs of the past and wish we had access to the world that existed in front of the lens of the great photographers working in the steam age. But these men and women were recording a present which was as familiar and perhaps mundane to them as our surroundings are to us today. Those historic photos which so intrigue us today, may have seemed ho-hum when they were taken. After all, the railroad was, even more so than today, commonplace. Everyone saw the steam locomotives and stations and tracks every day. Why bother taking a picture?
The old photos that I most enjoy connect me to the past because they include the ordinary buildings, the view down the track, the old automobiles, and the people.
And one day, people will look at photos taken today and marvel at the old buildings, the view down the tracks, the clothes and funny haircuts. “Look at that old car—my great-grandfather had one like that.”
Who knows what direction photography will take in the next decades. Perhaps a still photograph as we know it will itself be a relic from a lost age. But you can be sure no matter what the years may brings, the people living in the future will be intrigued by the way things looked in 2016. Don't let them down.
Edd Fuller, Editor
Your thoughts and comments are welcome