On Photography: What Makes an Image One of the 100 Greatest? The Magazine Editors Didn’t Say

We’ve been giving our home office an overhaul and I had to move my railroad books off the bookcase shelves in preparation for the room being painted. In the process I ran across a special issue of Trains that I had forgotten that I had.

Titled “100 Greatest Railroad photos” and published in late 2008, I looked 100 Greatest Coverthrough it in vain for an explanation of what makes a photo one of the 100 greatest of, presumably, all time.

Alas, the standards used to select those 100 greatest photographs weren’t explained.

Editor Jim Wrinn wrote that a friend told him that choosing the 100 greatest photographs was “near impossible.” Wrinn also listed the names and titles of the six Kalmbach editors who helped him make the selections.

But otherwise, there was no explanation of what makes a photograph great, let alone one of the 100 greatest.

So I reviewed the photographs and tried to get into the heads of the judges to see what they saw.

What did these photographs have in common? That proved hard to discern because not all images had the same attributes.

But if there was a common denominator it was the ability of each photo to tell a story that would engage the viewer and prompt him or her to linger over the photo.

Those stories ranged from man and machines pitted against harsh winter conditions to the poetic beauty of a West Virginia sunrise over the mountains as an empty coal train threaded its way through the New River Gorge.

There were images of railroaders and locomotives going about their jobs, and ordinary people interacting with the railroad.

A common theme was the contrast of light and dark. Often, trains were dwarfed by the environment, a reminder that as massive as trains may be there are other things more dominating and powerful.

Some photographs resulted from a lucky break of being in the right place at the right time. Yet give the photographer credit for knowing what to do with that moment and recognizing when it might come.

Great photographs often begin with great vision that combines with the great skill needed to make it happen. Luck is what happens on the road to the pursuit of greatness.

As I made my way through the magazine, I also got the impression that the judges weren’t just picking the “100 greatest” photographs. They were choosing images that worked well together in a “great” presentation.

The judges are experienced in picking photographs that can stand alone but much of their job is choosing images that work together to illustrate an overarching theme. They do that every day in assembling their magazines.

In this case, the overarching theme wasn’t just the 100 greatest photographs. These were 100 great photographs that collectively illustrated the drama, artistry and workaday nature of railroading.

In doing this, the judges sought balance. There was steam and diesel, contemporary and vintage, city and rural, and mountains and prairies. It was an all star lineup with no one photographer dominating the selections.

Perhaps Kalmbach should have named this publication “100 Great Railroad Photographs,” but the word “greatest” probably has better marketing appeal. The prime reason for publishing this magazine was to make money not to hand out the equivalent of the railroad photography Pulitzer Prize.

The staff of Trains is not the final arbiter of greatness and I am skeptical by nature of a publication proclaiming to show the “100 greatest” of anything.

The subheading “from the pages of Trains, 1904-2008” suggests that if the photograph wasn’t published in Trains, it wasn’t among the 100 greatest.

The editors might quibble with my interpretation of the publication title but the publisher wouldn’t mind people thinking that if it prompted them to plunk down $9.95 to buy the product.

There are lessons to be learned from studying great photographs that can be applied in everyday railroad photography.

Not every photo opportunity lends itself to making a “great” image. Sometimes the best you can do is “good” or even “better” than what you might have created otherwise.

Editor Jim Wrinn suggested as much with his introduction. “They will inspire you to step aboard a train or find your way trackside with a camera in hand. Such is the power of the 100 greatest railroad photos.”

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