Other kids would get assignments along the lines of: “Write a 500 word essay on how you spent your summer vacation.” I always wished for something like that. In 7th grade this would have read:
“We live on a boring road where nothing ever happens, so to keep me from driving my mother crazy, my father took me to Boston at least one day a week. My dad works near Harvard Square in a bright office with lots of computers. (That’s actually in Cambridge, not really Boston.)
“The first week he show me how to use the computer terminal and I played a game called ‘R Adventure’. The second week he showed me how to write a short program (that’s a bunch of lines and letters that tells the computer what to do). I wrote a program with a sneaky line called an ‘infinite loop’. This tells the computer to repeat the same line again and again. That was neat. I wrote ‘Brian Likes Trains.’ And this scrolled slowly over the CRT (that’s the computer screen that looks something like a TV but with green letters.)
“I figured I’d improve my program, so I added an exponent. When I ran the program the next time, the screen filled with ‘Brian Likes Trains’ faster and faster, soon the whole screen was rolling. Then it suddenly stopped. Actually the whole computer stopped. All the computers in the room stopped!
“A graduate student came in and spoke to my dad. Then my dad gave me a dollar and told me to go ride the subway or something. So I rode around and came back when it was time to drive back to Monson. Writing that program was like magic. Every time after that, my dad would give me a dollar and I’d ride around with my camera taking pictures.
“By August, I’d been on all the subway lines. So I went to the railroad station. South Station is a great place, it’s where they keep all the Budd Cars. Those are great because the engineers who run them let you ride up front and don’t charge you to ride.
“The Budd cars go all over the place, but if you’re not careful you might not get back by the time to go home, so it’s really important to get a schedule.
“My dad sometimes gave me his ‘SUPER WIDE ANGLE lens’. This is much better than my ‘Normal’ lens because its comes with a viewfinder which is an extra part you put on top of the camera that helps you to see pictures. With my normal lens, you have to look through a little hole, and that makes it harder to find good pictures.
“He also gave me a light meter to measure the light and set the camera. I made lots of pictures. This is one of my favorite because it shows the Budd Cars and the old signals at South Station. I had to walk all the way from the subway stop to the parking lot to make this picture and it was really hot outside.
“Now summer’s over, and I can’t ride around on the subway or Budd Cars until next year. I hate school.”
In1982, I was visiting my friend Dan Howard in Needham, Massachusetts. We’d made a day of riding bicycles to Framingham and back to photograph trains. (Neither of us were old enough to hold a valid driving license).
At the time, I was very enthusiastic about the railroad, and eager to capture it on film. Yet, I had very little conception of how to make photos. Furthermore, while I had a reasonably high quality camera, this was entirely dependant on my ability to set it properly (aperture, shutter speed, and focus)
I was using a 1930s-era Leica 3A with an f2.0 Summitar lens. This didn’t have the crutches provided with most cameras today: no auto focus, no auto exposure, no zoom-lens, and no instant response digital display window.
Simply getting film in the camera required the aid of a Swiss Army knife. While focusing the Leica using the rangefinder was a bit abstract. To gauge exposure, I used at Weston Master III light meter. With this camera I exposed Kodachome slides, and black & white 35mm film that I processed in the kitchen sink.
To simply get a photo of any kind, I had base level camera-operating skills, but no sense for how to make real railroad photos. I didn’t appreciate conventional angles, nor did I know what to crop out or what to feature. I knew precious little about working with light or how to make optimum use of the film media. My chemical processing skills were rudimentary, at best.
I just really wanted to make railway pictures! And, honestly, it’s a miracle that I got any results at all.
Thankfully on that day, Dan & I met a friendly and helpful grade crossing gate keeper, who manually worked the gates where former Boston & Albany and New Haven Railroad lines crossed the main street. He chatted with us and shared knowledge about when trains were coming. (Incidentally, I made a color slide or two of him working the gates, which seemed like the thing to do).
Toward the end of the day, a Conrail local departed Framingham’s North Yard, heading across the street and over the diamonds with the B&A on its way toward the Attleboro and beyond. I made this image ‘against the light’ looking into the setting sun, with a GP15-1 leading the local (which is about to cross the street) and some MBTA Budd cars in front of the old station.
Sometimes raw and unchecked enthusiasm produces a more interesting image than one crafted by skill, but hampered by ambivalence (or over thinking the photographic process.) Modern photographic scanners allow for me to interpret what I captured more than 30 years ago on film, and compensate for my lack of technical skill.