Making the Most of the Circumstances
Recently I was searching for another and completely different image to illustrate a point for this essay when I accidentally came across the photograph above. It struck me that I’d fortuitously made the most of a common event. The date was March 23, 1986, and I was working one of my favorite sections of railroad: Washington Hill on the old Boston & Albany ‘Westend,’ at that time operated by Conrail. The section of the line between Chester and Becket, Massachusetts, is well-known for its scenery and difficult operations. As I’ve written elsewhere, this route was built as Massachusetts’ Western Rail Road, an extension of the 1830s Boston & Worcester, considered the ‘world’s first mainline mountain grade’ (built on the principles of wheel/rail adhesion, as opposed to the more peculiar methods of moving goods by rail over mountains, such as cable-hauled portage railways). Surveyed in the mid-1830s, Washington Hill was constructed between 1839 and 1840; the track pictured is on its original, unaltered Western Rail Road alignment—a relatively unusual situation for a line that old. My late friend Robert A. Buck gave me my first proper tour of the B&A Westend when I was a child, and I’ve been making regular trips to document this line, its operations, and its history for nearly 30 years.
On this particular day, as with many of my Westend trips, I had started out from Monson, Mass., before the dawn, and drove directly to the old station location at Middlefield (near the village of Bancroft, as Middlefield village itself is actually several miles to the north, on top of a hill). Bob Buck had first visited Middlefield 40 years earlier, and had the fortune to watch and photograph Boston & Albany’s magnificent A1 Berkshire-type steam locomotives at work on the grade. His photos and descriptions had inspired this day’s visit and my numerous other trips over the years.
Conrail had a habit of operating a fleet of eastward trains in the morning, and my first train of the day was eastward intermodal (piggyback) train symbol TV14X, running from Chicago to Boston. This passed the site of the old Middlefield station at 7:29 am, shortly after sunrise. Later that same morning, I positioned myself on the ‘shelf’ near milepost 131 (the distance from South Station, Boston), around the corner and upgrade from the old station. The month of March can be a good time to work this part of the railroad since the days are relatively long, the air tends to be clear, the trees are barren, and weeds and underbrush haven’t yet started to grow — all of which helps portray the lay of the land and display a railroad’s infrastructure at its finest. Although a favorite vantage point, this shelf at milepost 131 has a difficulty: the hill behind me and the trees growing on it tend to shadow the line until mid-morning, making traditional railroad photography difficult. By the time the sun hits the rail it has come around to almost a nose-lit angle, a condition that might trouble some ‘three-quarter’ purists.
The morning had started out clear and sunny, but by 10am high filtered clouds had begun to soften the light and bring a bluish hue that is poorly suited to Kodachrome (then my staple color film), but is well suited to black & white photography. In the distance I’d heard a hint of a train drifting downgrade and got myself in position. Having put my slide camera away (at the time I was using an antique 35mm Leica IIIa with a Summitar 50mm lens), I instead opted for a black & white image of the eastbound train.
Eastward trains could easily sneak up on you at milepost 131 since the roaring water of the West Branch of the Westfield River tended to mute all other sounds. Yet, a keen ear might pick up the distant whistle when a train blew for Lower Valley Road in Becket, several miles to the west. Also, heavy eastward trains could be heard from the sound of their engines’ dynamic brakes howling, and the squeal of the wheels as the trains negotiated B&A’s tight curves—but such was not the case this morning.
I’d been studying the work of New York Central’s company photographer, Ed Novak, who had recently published a book of his black & white photos, most of which were made in the 1940s and 1950s. The text revealed that Novak used a Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex, with 120 Kodak Verichrome-Pan black & white film. (‘Verichrome-Pan’ inferred that the emulsion was ‘panchromatic’, meaning sensitive to all colors. Today we might assume this characteristic of all sensitive media, film and digital sensors, but until commercial development of panchromatic emulsions, most available black & white products suffered from limited spectral-sensitivity; in other words, they didn’t respond well to all colors, and lacked sensitivity to certain elements of the spectrum. Although panchromatic products date to the early years of the twentieth century, popular use panchromatic films didn’t predominate until the 1940s. If you ever wondered why many steam era photos appear to have been made on cloudy days, this is because typical orthochromatic emulsions of the period were overly sensitive to the blue spectrum and thus tended to render blue skies as white.)
Inspired by Novak’s commercial images of New York Central Mohawks, E7s, and other classic locomotives, I made regular use of my father’s Rollei Model T (which he purchased new in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1960) loaded with 120 Verichrome. While an excellent film in some regards, Verichrome was limited by modern standards, and my choice of cameras and film was antique (if not obsolete) even by 1986. I think many B&W photographers of the time would have preferred either Kodak Tri-X (rated at 400 ISO) or Kodak Plus-X (rated at 125 ISO), and probably using a yellow filter to compensate for films that remained over-sensitive to blue. However, among the advantages of Verichrome was its exceptionally fine grain, a quality that when combined with the Rollei T’s f3.5 Zeiss Tessar lens lent to exceptionally sharp images.
At that time, Verichrome was nominally rated by Kodak at 125 ISO, however I’d found through experimentation that more pleasing results were afforded when I rated the film at 80 ISO and processed it with Kodak D76 mixed 1:1 with water. My preference was to slightly over-expose film (by giving it more light) and then slightly under-process (shortening the process time) which created a broader tonal range while avoiding blocking up the highlight areas and minimizing build up of grain. Key to my processing technique was in the extremely gentle agitation of the tanks and tight temperature control (usually within one degree from pre-wash to final wash). I was studying photography at the time I made this image, and so was acutely aware of my intended processing at the time of exposure.
The Rollei offered few crutches to the inexperienced photographer. Not only was this a fully manual camera without battery or automatic functions, but it had no meter. To calculate exposure, I carried a pocket size handheld meter, and then refined my settings based on experience and detailed notes.
Note the rectangular format; as presented this image is full-frame and un-cropped. As a student with limited means, I tended to take advantage of the Rollei Model T’s ‘super slide’ insert, which allowed for approximately a 645 negative size and gave 16 rectangular frames per roll rather than a dozen 2¼ inch square frames. (Later, I came to prefer the aesthetic qualities of the square and made almost exclusive use of that format with the Rollei.)
The train heard in the distance was soon upon me, and, following moments of anticipation and hasty preparation, at 10:25am the ‘train’ came into view. I was immediately disappointed! It really wasn’t really a ‘train’ at all, but just a set of light engines running east from Selkirk Yard! (In 1986, Conrail didn’t assign helper engines to the B&A, yet light power moves were a common means for balancing traffic and positioning locomotives and crews.) Sure, locomotives are better than nothing at all, but I’d really hoped for a long train trailing behind the locomotives—making it a revenue move, which is what I’d come to expect. However, despite this letdown, I persevered and exposed a single frame anyway! I’ve always maintained a philosophy of photographing anything and everything that passes over the railroad and making the most of every opportunity. There’s a lesson here: I know many railway photographers who would have put their cameras down on the sight of a light power-set ‘to save film.’ Where’s the savings? If you fail to make a photo, not only won’t you have it to enjoy later, but you might be plagued with a nagging ‘what if’ sensation that follows you like an unwelcome cloud. Remember: subjects so common today as to seem unworthy of a photo will be history tomorrow. Case in point: 25 years earlier my father was near Paoli on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s ‘Main Line’. A set of light engines and caboose passed him and he made two photos (with the very same Rolleiflex) — one coming and one going. Just a pair of diesels, probably hardly worth the price of film. More than 30 years passed before those negatives were printed. The mere diesels of that day turned out to be a rare set of Baldwin centipedes, now considered among the most unusual diesels ever built.
Lets get back to the photo on March 23, 1986. Key to my location is the old B&A ‘tombstone’ milepost at the left. I’d positioned myself to feature this landmark, and carefully waited until the locomotives were near it, but not so close as to obscure it. Not only did milepost 131 hark back to New York Central days, but it identifies the location: there’s only one milepost 131 on the B&A route in the Berkshires. The milepost and hills, while important, are incidental to the primary subject, the locomotives, which as it happens, are now among my favorite diesels. These are General Electric C30-7As, a model built only for Conrail and delivered in summer 1984. But in 1986 these were standard motive-power assigned to the B&A route, and by no means unusual or noteworthy. In fact most of the trains I photographed that day were operated with C30-7As. This three-unit light power set was recorded as Conrail C30-7As 6567, 6553, and C32-8 6616 (just in case anyone needs to know). From an aesthical point of view, this light power set was precisely long enough to add railway interest without obscuring the subtle sinuosity of track in the distance, key to the railroad’s history. It’s just a small point, but that S-bend beyond the engines helps reveal the line’s graded quality and the twisty nature of the B&A route. Had this been Conrail’s SEPW (Selkirk to Providence & Worcester), that typically operated about this time, the freight cars would have blocked the view of the tracks and thus probably resulting in a less interesting image. Although disappointed at the time, I was lucky to have had such a perfect length of train, and in the end this disappointment proved to be an advantage!
As an aside, take note of the twin-head block signal on the westward main track. This another subtle element of interest that has a bit of history behind it: two years after this photo was exposed Conrail re-signaled the B&A Westend using a modern system of cab signals that obviated the need for way-side intermediate block signals such this one. All the New York Central-era searchlights were taken down. This style of signal had replaced upper quadrant semaphores after World War II. After B&A’s re-signaling the only line-side signals were modern color lights at dispatcher-controlled interlockings (junctions, ends of sidings, and crossovers, all known as ‘control points’). Yet, the base of this signal survives to mark its location, leaving a reminder of the traditional signals. Interestingly, the intermediate block signals on Washington Hill were continuously lit, while intermediate signals elsewhere on the B&A tended to be approach-lit. I mention this because in the photo the signal displays green-over-red (clear) even though the next westbound was a good distance away; it wouldn’t pass until 2:24pm, almost four hours after I made this image. If this signal had been approach-lit, a train would have been in the circuit and thus very close at hand; just a minor observation, but one worth noting.
So there we have it! A lot of background for a photo that disappointed me at the time, and one I might have neglected to expose. One last caveat: I kept detailed notes of my photography, in part to assist with processing, but also to aid with captioning photos later. Bob Buck was a stickler for providing detailed captions and I learned from his example. By taking notes and making captions, I have an excellent record of what, when, and where, as well as how I made my photos. In case you were wondering, I exposed this photograph between f5.6 and f8 at 1/500 second.