Many years ago my dad advised me, ‘photograph everything, because everything changes’. In October 2002, I made this photograph of Green Mountain Railroad’s excursion train passing the wooden covered truss at Bartonsville, Vermont. At the time this was a seasonal daily occurrence. While I was fond of the vintage Alco diesel, there was nothing unusual about the scene, and there was no special urgency in capturing the moment. Today, this image is a prize, but not for the Alco, which remains in excellent condition—I photographed it again last summer at White River Junction where it was positioned to power a Vermont Rail System excursion. The old covered bridge is only a memory today. It stood here since the 1870s, but on August 28, 2011 it was swept away by flood waters caused by Hurricane Irene. Its temporary replacement wasn’t as interesting to photograph; thankfully a replica truss bridge is under construction.
This weekend (January 26-27, 2013) is the annual Big Railroad Hobby Show sponsored by the Amherst Railway Society. It fills four buildings at the Eastern States Exposition grounds at West Springfield, Massachusetts and attracts tens of thousands of visitors. For railway enthusiasts it’s an epic event and an annual pilgrimage. The show is the living testimony of the late Bob Buck—long time show director and proprietor of Tucker’s Hobbies. Through clever marketing, unceasing persistence and a life-long passion for trains of all scales, Bob built the show from a small railroad hobby event into a massive one. Although Bob passed away in October 2011, the show remains one of his legacies. Last year the society honored Bob with a minute of silence before the show opened; I’m told you could hear a pin drop across the exposition grounds.
My interest in the show is a direct result of my friendship with Bob. Not only was he one of my most enthusiastic supporters, encouraging my photography from a very young age and promoting my work (and later my books), but also he urged me to photograph the show, sometimes commissioning me to make both publicity and documentary images.
For the photographer the show is a visually intense and challenging image making opportunity. Thanks to Bob I’d been photographing the show for more than 30 years. In my younger days I’d fumble through the day and churn through 6-8 rolls of 35mm black & white film, and then try to find a half dozen useable images. While digital photography is a godsend, it hasn’t got that much easier. What’s the difficulty? Thousands of people are packed into the grounds all jostling for views of layouts, while haggling over boxcar kits, rummaging through back issues of magazines and regaling one another with tales of the year’s events. At every step you are confronted with someone bumping you, standing in your way, or thrusting an elbow into your lens. Garish and harsh artificial lighting makes for odd contrast and peculiar color balance while inserting unwanted highlights all over the place. The disparity of scale between the spectators and railway models presents a depth of field nightmare. For the casual viewer the show is pure sensory overload. For the photographer it’s chaos.
Yet, I always bring my cameras. These days I primarily aim to make photos of my friends, my heroes, and the model trains that catch my eye. It’s a complete contrast from my efforts working with ‘prototype’ trains. Yet, when photographing scale trains, I apply many of the same techniques that I use for the larger ones. Here’s just a sampling of today’s efforts.
Yesterday, January 25, 2013 proved to be a productive day for photography. My friend and fellow photographer Pat Yough had come up for the annual Amherst Railway Society ‘Big Railroad Hobby Show’ at the ‘Big E’ in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and as this was the day before the show we spent the day photographing around Palmer, Massachusetts. I hadn’t intended to specifically make grade crossing photos, but as I was reviewing my results, I noted this as the theme to the day’s photography. I’ve included a few here.
Grade crossings offer interesting venues to photograph trains; here modes cross and so this provides opportunities to picture the railroad in its environment. For many observers, the grade crossing is the only place where they see trains. Unfortunately, crossings are not always merely benign interfaces. In a world with seemingly infinite distractions, to the non-enthusiast it might seem that a train appears out of nowhere and crosses the road. Nor does everyone find the same thrill of watching a train a crossing. More startling is when a motorist sails through a crossing, oblivious to tonnage bearing down upon them. The results don’t always favor the hapless. Ironically, waiting for me when I got home yesterday was the link to a recent video of truck-train collision on the Vermont Rail System that occurred a few days ago.
It’s been a long time since the old tower at the west-end of Pan Am Southern’s former Boston & Maine yard served as intended. Yet it survives as a landmark and lends to the heritage of the place. I’ve photographed this building many times over the years; by day, by night, by sun, and in the fog. This Monday evening (January 21, 2013), I exposed a few time exposures during a snow-squall. The lightly falling snow diffused the light from the yard making for an eerie glow—a quality of light well suited to night-photography. Finding a focus-point in the dark was a challenge, as was remaining out in the frosty evening while the camera exposed the photos.
Olomouc is a moderately-sized city off the beaten path in today’s Czech Republic. Historically it was the capital of Moravia in the old Hapsburg Empire and shares an architectural heritage with the Czech capital, Prague. Yet, it is a more compact, digestible version of Prague. The tourists haven’t ‘discovered’ Olomouc, and it has all those old-world central European qualities that I find fascinating and exciting to photograph, including a classic tram system. I’ve visited several times and this image was made shortly after sunrise on a September 2008 trip. Cobblestones make for a classic foreground as a Tatra T3 tram grinds its way from the railway station toward the city center. Olomouc has several tram routes and service is very frequent.
Yesterday (January 17, 2013), Rich Reed and I spent a productive day photographing along the old Boston & Maine. B&M to Pan Am: a traditional New England road, Boston & Maine was melded in to Guilford Transportation Industries in 1982. Guilford acquired the rights to Pan American Airways in 1998, and during 2005-2006 the railroad became known as Pan Am Railways. In 2008, the railway engaged in a joint venture with Norfolk Southern involving the former Boston & Maine route (now coined the ‘Patriot Corridor’) between greater Albany, New York and suburban Boston. As a result, Norfolk Southern locomotives are usual assigned to intermodal and automotive traffic operating over the old B&M route; in addition Pan Am operates a pair of through freights in conjunction with CSX between Portland, Maine and CSX’s Selkirk, New York yard (Pan-Am’s symbols SEPO/POSE; CSX’s Q426/Q427). These typically operate with CSX locomotives. Other traffic includes, coal trains originating on Providence & Worcester and traveling north via Pan Am rails to Bow, New Hampshire which run with P&W’s locomotives. Pan Am runs a few trains with its own locomotives; however while a number of Pan Am’s locomotives have been painted for the railroad, a good number of older locomotives still serve the railroad in Guilford paint.
The long and short of this essay is that lately, I’ve found it challenging to photograph Pan Am painted locomotives hauling trains on their own line, since the predominance of daylight traffic tends to feature locomotives from other lines. Yesterday, we caught six symbol freights, one of which was the westward POED (Portland, Maine to East Deerfield, Massachusetts), which was led by Pan Railways 610, a former Southern Pacific SD45 rebuilt to SD40-2 specs. Pan Am on Pan Am! Yea!
My article on Electro-Motive’s AC traction diesels is featured in the January 2013 issue of Germany’s ModellEisenBahner. This deluxe glossy publication offers superb photo reproduction and my images of Burlington Northern SD70MAC and Conrail SD80MACs are top notch. My detailed text for the article was translated into German by my editor Stefan Alkofer. I’m credited for photography and writing at the end of the article as per the magazine’s style. These American diesels are of interest to German readers because that use Siemen AG’s three-phase traction system and so represent a successful application of German technology on American railroads. In my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to photograph Electro-Motive’s various AC traction diesel models across the United States. These images have also been featured in a variety of American publications, including my latest book North American Locomotives.
In addition, a special ModellEisenBahner issue (MEB-Spezial Nr. 15) that focuses on American railways and American photographers features a short article I wrote on my father’s first visit to Germany in 1960 along with several of his vintage photos. My dad’s photos also help illustrate a detailed article on New York Central in the same issue.
January 15th, a day of significance: while best known as Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it is less well known for the anniversary of the 1953 Washington Union Terminal crash, when Pennsylvania Railroad’s Federal Express lost its brakes and GG1 Electric 4876 careened into the lobby of the terminal. This spectacular train wreck, on the eve of Eisenhower’s inauguration, made headlines in every major newspaper across the country.
That was 60 years ago today! However, thirty years ago, GG1 4876—then operated by NJ Transit, was still in daily service. It routinely worked between Penn Station and South Amboy on New York & Long Branch trains. I intercepted this infamous electric on various occasions in its final years of service. I’d hoped to make a photo on the anniversary of its infamy. And I went so far as to write NJ Transit to find out which trains it would be working, to which they kindly replied in detail. However a snowstorm on eve of 4876’s 30th anniversary precluded my travel, so my intended images from that day never happened. What I’ve posted here are few of my black & white images scanned from 1980s-era prints. They were exposed with my battle-worn Leica IIIA from my High School days. I processed the film in the kitchen sink using a weak mix of Kodak Microdol-X.
In August 1984, I made a ten-day adventure of riding Amtrak. I visited Montreal via the Montrealer, then to Washington D.C., where I boarded the Cardinal for Chicago. It was my first visit to America’s ‘Railroad Capital’; I spent three days wandering around, riding trains and transit, exposing every frame of film I brought with me. At that time, my standard camera was a 1937-built Leica IIIA that my father gave me for my 10th birthday. In addition to this Leica, for this trip, my dad gave me loan of its clone, which he’d bought years before complete with wind-up mechanical drive. Since the drive was weighty, I left it at home. Fitted to this camera was an obsolete collapsible Leitz 50mm Elmar with non-standard f-stops (f3.5, f4.5, f6.3, f9 & etc). While a remarkably sharp piece of glass, this lens suffered from antique coatings that made it inadequate for my color photography and made it susceptible to excessive flare. As a result, I relegated this lens to my B&W work, while using my 50mm f2.0 Summitar for color slides. Among the B&W photos I made was this image of Chicago Regional Transportation Authority F40PH 161 at Chicago & North Western Station.
What I remember best from this solo trip was arriving in Evanston, Illinois, where I had a pre-booked and pre-paid hotel room waiting for me, only to be told in a sneering manner by the woman at the desk that I, ‘wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel, because I was a minor’. She then began to admonish me for traveling alone! I was 17. I was incensed! “Lady, I’ve been traveling for weeks by myself, and you’re the first to cause me a problem because of my age! So! You’d rather have me on the street than in your hotel?” I walked out. Not one to waste time, I resorted to staying in the Evanston YMCA, which was primitive, but adequate, cheap, and didn’t interfere with my travel because of age.
One of the benefits of my visits to Monson, Massachusetts, is being within ear-shot of the former Central Vermont Railway, now operated by New England Central (NECR). Yesterday morning (January 10, 2013), I awoke to the sounds of a southward freight clawing its way up Stateline Hill (so-named because it crests near the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line). NECR freights take their time ascending the grade and on a clear day I can hear them climbing from about the time they depart the Palmer Yard. As a kid I’d count the crossings: CV’s GP9s whistling a sequence of mournful blasts for each one. Yesterday morning I dithered for a few minutes. Should I go after this train? Or, should I keep my nose to grindstone, writing? Clear skies forced the answer: GO!
My hesitation caused me to miss the opportunity for a photograph in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. This was blessing in disguise, since I’ve often caught the train here and then broke off the chase before getting deeper into Connecticut. Having missed Stafford Springs, I pursued further south, and caught the train four times at various points between Stafford and Willimantic. This a relatively easy chase, as Route 32 runs roughly parallel to the line.
Three elements made yesterday’s chase a satisfying exercise:
1) The train was operating at a suitable time of the morning for southward daylight photography (lately, NECR’s trains seem to have headed south either way too early or too late in the day for my photographic preferences—I’ve been photographing this line for more than 30 years, first chasing it with my Dad in the early 1980s, so I can be unusually choosy).
2) It was a ‘clear blue dome’—sunny, bright, and cloudless, always a great time to make morning photographs.
3) As it turned out, one of New England Central’s yellow and blue GP38s was leading. As I’ve mentioned previously, while this was once NECR’s standard locomotive, in recent years the type has become comparatively scarce on NECR, with many of the locomotives working the line wearing paint of former operators (Conrail, Union Pacific, Florida East Coast, and others).
I was also eager for a clear day to test some recently acquired equipment, especially my new Canon 40mm Pancake Lens, which arrived on Monday. I’ll make this lens the detailed topic of future posts.
After abandoning NECR at Willimantic, I made a few photographs of the town, which still has some wonderful old mill buildings, then continued south to New London where I focused on Amtrak for a while.
Since New England Central is among properties recently acquired by Genesee & Wyoming, I’m anticipating change and wondering when I’ll photograph the first orange & black locomotives
See my recent published book North American Locomotives for more information on New England Central’s and Genesee & Wyoming locomotives.
There’s a front page write up about my Irish photography and my Ebook for Apple iPad Dublin Unconquered in today’s Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican’s Metro East section. Pretty neat! I wasn’t expecting that!
Ireland Through a Magic Lens is the title of my upcoming illustrated talk sponsored by the Warren, Massachusetts Public Library. This will be presented at 7pm on Wednesday January 16, 2013 at the Warren Senior Center in West Warren, Massachusetts.
Address: 2252 Main Street (Rt 67), West Warren, MA 01092.
On this day in 1996, I was on a whirlwind tour of Chicagoland with the late Mike Abalos. We began our photography at Santa Fe’s Willow Springs yard and worked our way east through the industrial areas south of the Loop. My primary interest was photographing the myriad varieties of signaling active in the Chicago area, and Mike was just the man to get me to all the right places. This image was made near the end of daylight at State Line Tower. Throughout the day I was primarily using Kodachrome 25,working with my Nikon F3T, so this hastily composed photo was no exception. I was more interested in capturing the old Baltimore & OhioColor Position Light signal than the CP Rail train about to pass it.
B&O’s unusual Color Position Light signals use a single-head to display all aspects. Key to interpreting the signal is the position of the white light that modifies the basic aspect. A ‘clear’ aspect is represented with two green lights in a vertical pattern (mimicking an upper quadrant semaphore) with a white light directly above them; when the white light is directly below the two greens, the aspect is ‘medium clear.’ With conventional color light signals a ‘medium clear’ may be represented with a three-head signal by red-over-green-over-red, or on a high two-head signal as red-over-green. The essential difference between ‘clear’ and ‘medium clear’ is the maximum speed allowed through an interlocking. A ‘clear’ aspect permits maximum track speed while a ‘medium clear’ limits speed typically to 30 mph. While fading light isn’t the best time to photograph moving trains, it is however a great time to photograph signals (because the signal lights appear brighter in comparison with ambient conditions). Thank you Mike!
Picking photos for Tracking the Light can be a challenge. Everyday since March 2013 I’ve posted original photos to this site. That means, come rain or shine, I’ve selected photos and put words to them.
For this post, I though I’d try something a bit different. Rather than work from my semi-organized labeled material, I selected a random box of raw and unsorted slides and just plucked out a photo randomly.
While not the best picture in the box, frame 22 isn’t a bad photo.
I made it on the afternoon of October 13, 2001. Mike Gardner, Tim Doherty and I had been following an empty Mt Tom coal train since it left the plant near Northampton, Massachusetts. We caught it a multitude of locations on Guilford Rail System’s former Boston & Maine.
The last place we photographed this train was at Hoosic Falls, New York. My notes from the day read: “Hoosic Falls in a fascinating little American town—once prosperous, but on a decline . . . certainly worth some photography.”
And so there you go! Random Slide Number 22, displayed and explained.
South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority provides public transportation in the Philadelphia area and is one of the most eclectic and historically diverse transit systems in the USA. In addition to former Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Company suburban railway services, it also operates two street car/light rail systems, several third-rail rapid transit subway/elevated services, the former Philadelphia & Western interurban third rail electric line (100 route), and myriad bus and electric (trolley) bus routes. Despite the variety of former operators, today’s SEPTA is reasonably well integrated and offers a variety of interface points between different transport modes. From my experience the transit vehicles appear clean and well maintained and the stations, many of which retain a classic appearance are also generally well appointed. The trains typically operate a regular interval service, with most heavy rail routes offering at least an hourly frequency, with express or extra services at peak times.
Over the years, my brother Sean and I have explored SEPTA as part of a greater urban experience, and I’ve gradually accumulated a considerable body of work depicting the network. SEPTA’s mix of modern and historic equipment combined with Philadelphia’s patchwork urbanity offers seemingly endless opportunities for image making.
Collected here are a few of my most recent efforts that were exposed over the last few days since the New Year. Significantly, these were largely made while using SEPTA as transport, thus integrating my photography with my transportation—an age-old tradition in urban-rail image making. I’ve found that SEPTA’s $11 Independence Pass is great value for such exercises. When possible, Sean and I will ride at the front of a vehicle, which both provides picture possibilities and allows for a better understanding of operations.
See my book Railroads of Pennsylvania for more about SEPTA, Pennsylvania Railroad, Reading Company and the history behind these operations.
On Wednesday January 2, 2013, I revisited Philadelphia’s old Reading Terminal with my brother Sean and Michael Scherer. It was still a functioning passenger terminal when I first visited this iconic railroad facility in the late 1970s with my family. In 2007, I covered its history in my book Railroads of Pennsylvania.Here’s an excerpt of my text:
In the 1890s, Philadelphia & Reading invested its anthracite wealth in construction of one of Pennsylvania’s most ornately decorated company headquarters and passenger terminals. Facing Philadelphia’s Market Street, one of downtown’s main thoroughfares, Reading Terminal represented an ostentatious display of success, but one that now has benefited citizens and visitors to Philadelphia for more than a century.Like many large railway terminals of its time, Reading Terminal followed the architectural pattern established in Britain, perfected at London’s St. Pancras station. This pattern features two distinct structures for the head house and train shed. The Reading station architect, F. H. Kimball, designed the head house to rise nine stories above the street and its façade is made of pink and white granite, decorated with terra cotta trimmings. Behind the head house is the functional part of the station, an enormous balloon-style train shed—the last surviving North American example—designed and built by Philadelphia’s Wilson Brothers. The terminal closed as a result of consolidation of Philadelphia’s suburban services on November 6, 1984. Its modern underground replacement—SEPTA’s Market East Station—is nearby.
Designed by Philadelphia’s Wilson Brothers and built by Charles McCall, Reading Terminal’s vast balloon shed is the last surviving example of its type in the United States.
For several years I’ve been eyeing the view from Laurel Hill Cemetery as a place to make a railway photograph of the former Reading Company bridges over the Schuylkill. I was intrigued by combination elevation and the complexity of the scene. My brother Sean and I scoped this out last winter, but the light was dull and trees blocked the angle I wanted for a southward train. Recently the view was improved as a result of extensive tree removal around the river-side of the cemetery. Yesterday, Sean, Mike Scherer and I investigated photographic views from Laurel Hill. Our timing was right; I made this image of CSX’s symbol freight Q439 rolling across the bridge at 2:22 pm. I’m pleased with this effort, since catching a train here has been a challenge and the angle is a new one for me, yet I see room for improvement. Finding a train here an hour or two earlier in the day might offer better light on the side of the locomotives, while a slightly longer lens would tighten my composition.
July 5, 1994, was a very productive day for me; I’d been photographing from dawn to dusk in western Montana and the Idaho Panhandle. I concluded my efforts with this image at Burlington Northern’s yard along the old Great Northern main line at Whitefish. This was my first visit to the town and I arrived about an hour before sunset. I made this image in the final moments of sunlight—just after 10pm. I used my Nikon F3T fitted with an f4.0 200mm lens loaded with Kodachrome 25. I opted to silhouette the engine. This caught the sunlight through the cab, and illuminated the engineer—who appears anonymously with a halo flare around him. Although not readily visible to the naked eye, the sky was laden with particulate matter (possibly smoke from forest fires?) that made for an especially reddish effect on Kodachrome. I’m partial to the monochromatic effect of low red sun, so Kodachrome was a choice material to work with in this regard. While the film made for a deep black, it had an ability to retain detail in extreme areas of the image. Both highlight and shadows retain a high level of detail and sharpness. I find this type of image difficult to make with digital cameras. This scan was made directly from the original slide and is unmodified except for scaling. The locomotive is prominent but not overbearing. Reflective rails—shining in the light—emphasize this as a railway image while providing a natural frame; they add interest while keeping the eye from getting lost in the inky foreground. The silhouette in the cab provides a human element. The subtle detail of the trees and hills beyond the locomotive give a sense of place without offering specifics. The ability of the film to maintain a sharp edge in an extremely contrasty situation help identify the locomotive—for those who are interested—as an Electro-Motive end-cab switcher (model SW1500). The locomotive’s wheels touch the rails tie the scene together while maintaining an abstract quality. We can enjoy this image as a frame in time, although in reality it existed only for an instant.