Southern Pacific on Donner Pass, June 1990.


Working with Harsh Light in the California Sierra.

On the advice of J.D. Schmid, in June 1990,  I’d bought my first single lens reflex; a Nikon F3T (which I still use, occasionally). Initially, I owned just two lenses: a 35mm PC (perspective control—tilt/shift) and a second-hand Nikkon f4.0 200mm telephoto.

For most of my photography, I was still working with my Leica M2, and so the Nikon was just a new toy.

Living in Roseville, California near the Southern Pacific yard, gave me ample opportunity to explore and photograph SP operations. My favorite subject was Donner Pass, and most weekends would find me wandering around at high elevations seeking angles on the railroad.

Southern Pacific on Donner Pass.
A Southern Pacific freight descends Donner Pass between Crystal Lake and Yuba Pass, California in June 1990. Exposed with a Nikon F3T with 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25 slide film. As with other of my backlit images, the secret is keeping the sun from falling on the front element.

The Sierra can be a challenging place to make railroad photos. On this morning, I was between Yuba Pass and Crystal Lake on the west slope of Donner. I’d photographed this SP westward freight descending the mountain using the new F3T and 200mm lens on Kodachrome 25.

Despite photographic conventions, I was positioned on the dark side of the line, and aimed into the sun, while looking cross-light the train. The glinty back-lit rocks help silhouette the locomotives. Although the time of day resulted in harsh contrast and a stark scene, I like the result. It captures the spirit of raw mountain railroading that for me was SP on Donner.

This is a place where the tracks are cut into a rock shelf and require lots of power to get trains over the spine of the Sierra Range. Back lighting and telephoto compression shows the heat of from the dynamic brakes rolling off the tops of SP’s ‘Tunnel Motors’ (locomotives specifically built to endure the rigors of Donner). In the distance is a hint of one of SP’s wide signal bridges, necessary for winter operations.


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