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The Midwest's Premier Railroad Photography Conference 2011

The Center for Railroad Photography & Art holds its ninth annual “Conversations about Photography” in Lake Forest, Ill. The conference showcases some of the best of the best photographers. Get a sneak peek now!
By Scott Lothes
Published: April 5, 2011
haensch
Steam passenger train on the Harz Mountain Railway in Germany on a snowy winter night in 2007.
Photo by Olaf Haensch
Kistler doubleheader
Two massive Union Pacific steam locomotives lead a westbound freight train out of Cheyenne, Wyo., in November 1956. Stan Kistler started photographing in 1943 at age 12, and the decisions he has made throughout his distinguished career can be instructive to any practicing railroad photographer.
Photo by Stan Kistler
McMillan newfoundland
Canadian National narrow gauge mixed train no. 211 at Spaniard’s Bay on the island of Newfoundland on July 29, 1980. Joe McMillan brings the experience of decades in railroad photography, along with the perspectives of having worked for the railroad (he retired from AT&SF in 1995) and currently publishing railroad books and calendars.
Photo by Joe McMillan
gruber electroliner
Electroliner train speeding along the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban electric railroad in the early 1960s. John Gruber has been applying a photojournalist’s approach to railroads since 1960; the “North Shore” was among his first self-assigned projects.
Photo by John Gruber
Zimmerman Union Limited Cropped
Union Limited passenger train departing Hartenbos, South Africa, in the early morning behind a 4-8-2 and a Beyer-Garratt steam locomotive. Karl Zimmermann, a travel writer and photographer, offers lessons in seizing the moment when you only have one chance to create a memorable image of a subject or event.
Photo by Karl Zimmermann
Bertucci Butterball
Milwaukee Road engineer, “Butterball,” on the road to Bensonville, Ill., in 1974. Lina Bertucci became one of the first women hired in train service for the Milwaukee Road, and her images of her workplace and coworkers portray a strong sense of humanity amid the dark times leading up to the Milwaukee’s bankruptcy.
Photo by Lina Bertucci
ableidinger red river
Red River Valley & Western freight train returning to Jamestown, N.D., after picking up two cars from the elevator at Woodworth, N.D., in February 2008. Lewis Ableidinger is a conductor on the Canadian Pacific and applies lessons from the New Topographics photography movement to railroads in the prairies.
Photo by Lewis Ableidinger
osmundson nevada
Nevada Northern passenger train. Gordon Osmundson will discuss how he uses Photoshop in his photography on Sunday morning at the conference.
Photo by Gordon Osmundson
Once you’ve mastered the technical aspects of photography, continued learning and advancement is — for me at least — a two-part process. A writing instructor once summed this up in the literary world thusly: read-write, read-write, read-write, read-write. Photography is similar for me: one part is going out and making my own photographs, while the other part is studying the work of others.

As railroad photographers, we have a wealth of material to study, from the pages of Trains and other magazines, to vast online collections, to an ever-expanding library of railroad books. We also have a few more personal venues: organized events centered on presentations of railroad photographs. I’ve just returned from Winterail, the annual railroad multimedia show in Stockton, Calif. This was its 33rd year, and it’s easily the biggest of these events, with close to a thousand attendees. Summerail offers a similar experience every August in Cincinnati. The crowd there is smaller at 250-300, but Summerail boasts the grand venue of Cincinnati Union Terminal. Other regional events exist throughout the country.

The multimedia presentations at these events typically feature railroad photographs synchronized to music and often accompanied by maps and narration. They range from travelogues of railfan trips, to descriptive shows of content-driven photographs about a specific region or railroad, to moody and sometimes evocative presentations of emotion-driven photographs. Some of my favorites follow a narrative format, telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. These shows are usually entertaining, often informative, and sometimes even inspirational. Photographer Mel Patrick, in particular, has pioneered this genre, from his Chicago Union Station show of the 1960s right up to his stunning night shows of the past few years.

The Center for Railroad Photography & Art takes a different approach at its annual conference, “Conversations about Photography,” which I’ve helped organize for the past three years. I think of the multimedia shows as “finished products,” much like a book or a magazine article, while the presentations at “Conversations” offer a more “behind-the-scenes” glimpse into the minds and creative processes of photographers.

One of my most memorable examples came from the 2008 conference, when David Plowden was talking about photographing railroad bridges. I have seen Plowden’s books of railroad photographs and of bridge photographs, and I have always been impressed at how he captures so much of the character of a bridge in a single picture. (He will attend this year’s conference and sign his most recent book, "Requiem for Steam.") It’s as if Plowden can interpret everything about a bridge — its details, technology, setting, and role in society — into a single, two-dimensional image.

In my naivety, I used to think that Plowden could walk up to any bridge, take one look at it, and immediately discern the best location, angle, composition, and lighting to tell the complete story of that bridge in one picture. Plowden has a tremendously gifted eye, but he is still mortal and thus is not omniscient. During that talk at “Conversations,” he revealed that he sometimes would spend as much as a week studying one bridge in order to understand how best to photograph it.

Most of us are not able to devote an entire week to obtaining one photograph, but I could still appreciate what Plowden was saying. Slow down. Look around. Take some time to try to understand your surroundings before waiving your camera in every direction.

This year’s conference on April 15-17 at Lake Forest (Illinois) College features a diverse mix of presentations on railroad photography, as well as railroad music and writing. The event begins with a dinner on Friday evening and a featured presentation of spectacular night photography by Olaf Haensch, an editor at Modelleisenbahner, a leading German model railroad magazine. Haensch won the Center's Creative Photography Award in 2008 and his new (2010) book NachtZüge (Night Trains) has sold 6,000 copies in its first four months. 

The conference continues through Saturday with six feature presentations (see preview photos at right) followed by a reception sponsored by Trains and Classic Trains, and it concludes on Sunday with workshops on digital photography. Exhibitions by Stan Kistler and Gordon Osmundson will be on display, Plowden and Karl Zimmermann will sign books, and limited edition prints will be available for purchase. The conference concludes on Sunday with workshops on digital photography.

The conference offers a wonderful opportunity to learn and reflect on railroad photography, and to meet other photographers and share ideas. I hope to see you there!

Trains contributor SCOTT LOTHES is a writer and photographer in Oregon City, Ore. He is project director for the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.
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