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
) 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.
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.