Are Today’s Master Photographers Legendary Photographers?

I never met Jim Shaughnessy and know relatively little about his life and work other than I’ve seen his photographs published countless enough times for it to have created a sense of familiarity.

His death this week at age 84 and the tributes that have followed have led me to wonder if there ever will be another class of giants whose work is larger than life and takes on legendary status.

In a tribute posted on the Trains magazine website, Kevin Keefe, himself something of a legend in railfan publication circles, described Mr. Shaughnessy as among the “big three” of railroad photographers.

The other two were Richard Steinheimer and Philip R. Hastings. They are all deceased now and I wonder if any current active railroad photographer will someday be remembered in the same terms as these men.

A larger question is what makes a master photographer. There have been and continue to be many photographers whose work makes them masters.

They are masters because their technical and artistic skills set them apart from weekend amateurs or even the merely good.

They became known for their focus on environmental images as opposed to the roster shot style of images that were popular when they picked up their cameras in the post World War II era.

And they made their mark during the era when steam locomotive power was giving way to diesels.

“Yes, the diesel was more predictable and it quietly went about its business,” Mr. Shaughnessy once said. “It presented a different kind of visual challenge. But this was a transition era. It would only happen once. I was glad to be there for it.”

Railroading in the 21st century seems in so many ways less interesting than it was when master photographers as Jim Shaughnessy were in their prime.

There are far fewer passenger trains, far fewer railroad companies with their unique identities, and far less railroad infrastructure.

There are still compelling scenes to be captured because the geography of the United States has not changed.

But we can’t control in what times we live. We can only control what we do during those times and how we work with what we have.

Mr. Shaughnessy’s reputation was largely built on his work appearing in Trains magazine. It was this association that made him a legend.

It occurred during a time when railfan magazines, books and railroad clubs formal and informal were the primary ways of viewing photographs of railroad operations.

The editors of those books and magazines served as gatekeepers who determined whose work would be seen and how often.

Those gatekeepers themselves had larger than life status. Think David P. Morgan.

The coming of the Internet changed that. Now anyone can create a Flickr account or join a chat list and post their photographs.

A lot of mediocre and downright bad photography is getting posted and it amazes me how often the mere average or even sub-average is proclaimed as “good” or “very good” by some.

There is, of course, much good and excellent work also being posted online.

There are photographers today whose work is the technical and creative equal of that of Shaughnessy, Steinheimer and Hastings. But the “fame” of that work seems more fleeting due to the nature of the online world.

The curators of the online world are largely invisible and thus have far less known influence in legend making as men such as Morgan or Keefe. Hence, there is lack of well-known gatekeepers who have the ability and influence to anoint today’s masters as legends.

Books and magazine seem to enshrine a photograph in ways that websites cannot.

But even in the paper publishing world, quantity has swamped quality. Companies such as Morning Sun have flooded the market with books of railroad photographs, thus watering down the ability of the medium to elevate legends.

It may be that the stature accorded to the likes of the “big three” is an artificial construct created by magazine editors whose influence may not be what it seems, the reputation of David Morgan notwithstanding.

Whenever I read tributes to legendary photographers I’m struck by the dedication that they paid to their work and craft. Those attributes still exist among many photographers today.

At the same time, they actively sought to get their work published and it was that endeavor that as much as anything made their reputations as legends.

You can’t become a legend if few people are familiar with your work, particularly key people who can ensure that your work is seen by a large audience. The online world has made it easier to view the work of more photographers, but in doing that something has been lost.

When today’s “legends” pass from this world, will their work be lauded in obituaries in the same manner as that of Jim Shaughnessy? There will be efforts to do that, yet I doubt that it will have the same impact.

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