On Photography: Nailing It

Nail it

David P. Morgan was feeling pensive. His friend and traveling companion Philip R. Hastings had died the year before.

Now he was thinking about all of the places he and Hastings had visited, including a stretch of the New York Central on the Illinois prairie.

It was there in 1954, while traveling to make images for their “Smoke Over the Prairies” series in Trains magazine, that they had encountered NYC Hudson No. 5403.

It was pulling a mail and express train westward out of Mattoon

As Morgan drove his Ford convertible, which he had purchased new earlier that year, Hastings crouched in the back seat.

The 5403 and its train came from behind, moving slowly at first and then accelerating as though it was a rocket blasting off into space.

When Morgan and Hastings broke off the chase, the train was going 85 mph and pulling away.

The image that Hastings captured merited a handwritten note of congratulations from Trains publisher and founder A.C. Kalmbach, something that Morgan said Kalmbach did not do often.

In writing about that image, again, 34 years later, Morgan quoted Lucius Beebe: “to know that one has it, cold turkey, is one of the great delights of the business of living.”

To use a contemporary phrase, Morgan meant that Hasting had “nailed it.”

It is a moment of triumph akin to the exhilaration of hitting a home run, executing a slam dunk, or putting the puck past the goalie.

It is a moment of pure emotion. All that you worked for has come together and you can proclaim to yourself, “I got it!”

But what is the “it” that you nailed or captured or whatever? And how do you know that you have “it” whatever “it” may be.

Often, recognizing that a photographer “nailed it” can be explained the way that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once attempted to define obscenity in a 1964 case. I know it when I see it.

Actually, Stewart was explaining why he was NOT attempting to give a tangible definition of obscenity, because, he wrote, “ . . . perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so . . .”

Stewart’s words became the butt of joking over the years among Supreme Court law clerks when reviewing materials that had been deemed to be obscene.

Yet Stewart had a point. When trying to use mere words to describe something that people feel, the words often come up short.

Maybe that is why the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” came to be.

If photographs are the medium of emotional reaction, words are the medium of explanation.

Consider the photograph shown above. It was made in May 1983 in approximately the same location where Morgan and Hasting chased NYC 5403 three decades earlier.

A Conrail rail train that is barely visible in the distance has lifted the rails from the former New York Central line that once extended to St. Louis.

Of all the images of that process that I created on this day, this one gives me that feeling of having “nailed it.”

The “it” of this image is a place. It is a story about the place. It is the essence of the story about the place.

Look at that ruler-straight right of way. Look at the open spaces surrounding it. Look at the blue sky . . . the parallel highway . . .  the small portion of the machine to the right . . . the spec of blue that is the bus to carry the Conrail workers . . . the ballast, the ties and the tie plates that the workers have temporarily left behind.

Do you feel the emotion? Do you feel how something that has lasted for more than a century is in the process of going away?

Do you feel the sense that you always had that “it will always be there” is now evaporating into that open space and blue sky?

Do you feel the disappointment that something that has been a part of you all of your life is being ripped away and there is nothing you can do about it except to record its passing?

If you do, then you know why I look at this photograph and know that I “nailed it.”

This is what it looks like when the railroad leaves town, never to return again.

Not everyone will see or feel what I did because they did not experience what I did.

Morgan visited this location on Dec. 1, 1988, and his story was published in the September 1989 issue of Trains.

I would like to think that Morgan knew that he was on short time and that he wanted to leave something for future generations of railroad enthusiasts.

So he used the story of his return to the site of a previous memorable experience as a cautionary tale. Enjoy it now because it won’t necessarily always be there.

Morgan had a way with words, a gift really, that few have. I don’t know if he was a photographer.  I do know that he was a superb wordsmith whose words often conveyed and invoked emotion.

And yet other than to explain what you are seeing in this image, are words necessary to describe it? If not, that means that the photographer has nailed it.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

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