John Gruber was Influenced by the Work of Photojournalists and Brought That to Railroad Photography

Wednesday, Oct. 10, was a slow day for railroad news. Oh, there was news made and reported, but none of it involved railroad operations in the region that I cover for the Akron Railroad Club blog.

Among the news items on Wednesday was an obituary for John Gruber, 82, of Madison, Wisconsin, a noted railroad photographer and founder of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.

I wasn’t going to report Gruber’s death on the ARRC blog because I wasn’t sure most ARRC members would know who he is even if they might have seen his work.

But I was intrigued when former Trains editor Kevin Keefe wrote in a tribute that Gruber had pioneered a “daring new approach to photographing the railroad scene.”

That got my attention. What was it? How was it daring?

It turns out that Gruber was an early practitioner of using a telephoto lens to, as Keefe put it, practice the art of “getting up close and personal with professional railroaders.”

This wasn’t something that Gruber thought of on his own but rather was the byproduct of the influence of newspaper photographers.

Keefe wrote that Dick Sroda of the Wisconsin State Journal and Jim Stanfield of the Milwaukee Journal inspired Gruber to go beyond what he was seeing in Trains magazine.

“It was a time when press photographers and journalists were interested in what people were doing,” Gruber once said. “I saw this as an underrepresented area of railroad photography, and I took advantage of every opportunity to document railroad people at work, rather than concentrating on equipment.”

Gruber may have built a career on people-oriented photographs, but it is not a philosophy that has caught on with most rank and file railfan photographers.

Most railfans are fixated on the equipment, particularly the lead locomotive of a train. The people working on the train, riding the train, or watching the train are an afterthought if they are thought about at all.

That is particularly true of spectators and bystanders. We’ve all heard someone lament that a railfan or a daisy picker got into an otherwise pristine image of an oncoming train. I’ve griped about that myself at times.

Although I never considered myself a photojournalist per se, I did engage in the practice during my early years in the newspaper industry.

At small town newspapers you need to make photographs as well as conduct interviews and write stories.

News organizations spend a lot of time writing about the behavior of organizations. They also report a lot of staid news about people in organizations, much of it focusing on such things as the work history of someone who was just named to a position such as vice president.

That information can be contrived and lacking a sense of authenticity even if it is rooted in reality.

But it’s the moments when people are captured acting naturally that most excites photojournalists. To capture those moments on film or megapixels takes practice, some training, and patience. In time it becomes something that you just do.

John Gruber is not the only railroad photographer who took a journalistic mindset into his work and he probably wasn’t the first.

But it became his trademark or brand to use a current buzzword.

His first photograph published in Trains featured shivering railfans photographing an excursion on the North Shore interurban line at Northbrook, Illinois, in February 1960.

That led to a friendship with legendary Trains editor David P. Morgan, who published many of Gruber’s photographs. The two would go on to become traveling companions.

Keefe wrote that Morgan would later say about Gruber that he was always “on top of the action, however unexpected and regardless of the hour. His pictures tell it like it was.”

Gruber never worked as a newspaper man, opting instead to take a job in publications and public relations at the University of Wisconsin, a position he held for 35 years.

But you don’t have to be a professional journalist to understand and practice the principles of photojournalism.

Aside from his work for the university, Gruber was an editor of the Gazette of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum.

In 1995 he began editing Vintage Rails, a magazine about railroad history and culture published by Pentrex.

After Pentrex shut that publication down four years later, Gruber moved on to organize the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, which has its own magazine and hosts an annual conference known as “Conversations.”

“I had become curious about railroad photographers — who they were, their backgrounds, their ideas about photography,” Gruber said of why he created the organization.

Other than magazine articles, Gruber wrote or co-wrote a number of books, including Travel by Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950 (with Michael Zega); Classic Steam; and Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography

In 1994, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society presented Gruber its Senior Achievement Award.

You sometimes hear railroad photographers describe one of their images as having been inspired by a well-known photographer such as Philip R. Hastings, Richard Steinheimer, David Plowden or Jim Shaughnessy.

None of the images presented above were inspired by John Gruber as such. But I’d like to think that he’d appreciate them and understand why I made them.

They were all made on the same day on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and none were planned. They were just moments I saw and was nimble enough to capture. More often than not instinct takes over when these opportunities present themselves.

The top image was made at Boston Mill before a photo runby featuring Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765.

I don’t know who that boy is. He might be the son of the engineer or another members of the locomotive crew. But this experience is one he will never forget and one that many children and even adults are not fortunate enough to have.

The middle image was a grab shot of a passenger sitting in one of the open-window cars in the steam excursion. I did intend to make images of passengers watching out those windows, but you don’t know what you will get.

This guy’s demeanor captures the joy of riding an excursion, particularly one behind a big steam locomotive.

The bottom image was made at Botzum station of a CVSR engineer working the northbound National Park Scenic.

It’s one of those countless moments that unfold on the CVSR or any other passenger railroad every day. And yet it tells a story, even if only a small one, of life on the railroad.

I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to Gruber than to post the type of images he devoted his life to making.

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