Archive for the ‘On Photography’ Category

When Someone Thinks Your Hobby is Silly

February 13, 2017

A spring on the door of our dishwasher had broken so we called an appliance repairman to fix it. He been to our home before, but I’d never met him.

on-photography-newI had come downstairs to see how the repairs were going and found the repair guy talking to my wife about someone he knows who photographs trains.

I’ve never met the appliance repairman’s friend, but his name sounded vaguely familiar.

Within seconds it became apparent that the repair guy doesn’t think much of the hobby of photographing trains. “I think you’re both nuts,” he said.

It could have been worse. At least he didn’t say that railroad photographers are engaging in some sort of nefarious activity.

It was yet another example of why I am careful who I talk with about what I enjoy photographing.

The repair guy didn’t say why he thinks it strange that someone would travel for miles to photograph a particular locomotive.

Given the strident tone of his remarks, I didn’t care to explain it to him. He doesn’t want to know and probably wouldn’t understand if someone did explain it to him.

He thinks making photographs of trains is silly and nothing I or anyone else might say in response is going to change his mind.

I generally avoid people like that. It doesn’t matter what they think.

Of course some people are open-minded about the interests of others and have a genuine curiosity about the attraction of railroad photography to those who practice it.

If such a person were to ask me why I make railroad photographs I would say that railroad operations have always fascinated me and that I can’t remember a day in my life when I wasn’t interested in trains.

I don’t know why that is. Why does anyone like what they like? There are reasons for it, but sometimes those are beyond our comprehension.

Maybe it is because trains are large objects that move. I also have an interest in commercial transport aircraft for the same reason.

Maybe those are unsatisfactory explanations for why I like to photograph trains, but I sometimes wonder about those who religiously follow a certain professional Cleveland football team that loses games more often than it wins them.

They talk about what the owners, players and coaches should be doing even though no one with the team will ever hear their ideas or much care about them. Now isn’t that silly? Maybe not if you enjoy doing it and it is harmless fun.

People have passions about certain things and they seldom sit back and wonder why that is. There is no reason to do that. You like something and that’s that.

I’ve never felt a need to do “missionary work” and explain why I and others enjoy photographing railroad operations.

And yet given the post-911 climate we probably should. We probably should seek to educate the public about why we make railroad photographs.

But I don’t want to do that. If someone thinks that making photographs of railroad operations is silly or stupid, well, that’s their problem, not mine.

And yet I know that it does become my problem when their problem becomes the worldview of police officers and others with a well-meaning, but misguided sense of trying to protect national security.

In the meantime, I’m going to go about my business of photographing rail operations. I enjoy it and come to think of it maybe I need no better explanation than that.

If You Post Your Photographs in Social Media, It’s Almost a Sure Bet That Someone Will Steal Them

January 30, 2017

If you post photographs on social media you run the risk that someone will copy and use your work without your permission. Chances are they won’t even give you credit so no one will know that it is your image.

on-photography-newIn theory that is a violation of copyright law, but like speeding on an expressway it is a law that is widely flaunted.

I’m not sure whether to be angry or flattered when someone steals my photos.

At times I’ve been amused. That was the case when someone posted on a photograph of a flier on the wood bridge carrying Bort Road over the CSX Erie West Subdivision tracks near North East, Pennsylvania.

A group seeking to save the bridge from removal put on that flier an image that I made of a CSX train passing beneath the bridge. That photo had been posted on the Akron Railroad Club blog.

I was less amused when I discovered the organizers of a Michigan railroad conference lifted an image I made last July of Amtrak’s Blue Water at Durand, Michigan.

An educational group should know better than to steal a photograph without permission or giving credit.

On occasion, someone sends me an email asking permission to use one of my photographs.

The Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers did that for an image I made of an Amtrak train in Kalamazoo. My images have been used with permission in professional presentations and in the magazine of a rails-to-trails group.

But All Aboard Ohio stole a photograph I made of the Lake Shore Limited at Bort Road and published it on Page 1 of its newsletter. They did give me credit, though.

Some photographers won’t post on social media because they hate having their photographs used without their permission.

Others post stern copyright warnings, but those may be useless because it is easy to copy and paste online content.

Those who steal copyrighted work are largely unapologetic about it. Supposedly, some people believe that if something is online it is in the “public domain.”

There may be some truth to that, but I see it a different way. There is larceny in the hearts of many, if not most Americans.

Some scrupulously honest people will refrain from theft out of principle or moral obligation, but far more others have the attitude of “I’ll take what I can until someone stops me.”

The cost of stopping people who steal photographs can be high and the rewards low or nonexistent even if you prevail in a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Using the legal system is not free.

Many, if not most, who “steal” the photographs of others are not making money from the theft.

They see what they did as providing an illustration. I can look past those situations, but have a harder time with situations such as the blogger who copied an image I made inside an Amtrak dining car and used it to illustrate a travelogue about his Amtrak trip. The post suggested it was his photograph.

I received an email from someone I don’t know alerting me to that theft and providing a link to the site moderator to seek removal of the image.

I was told this blogger has a reputation of stealing other people’s images. Although I thanked the watchdog, I wound up not doing anything about the theft.

In part that is because I have adopted the philosophy of David Oroszi, a highly-respected railroad photographer from Dayton.

He once wrote that if someone is able to profit from stealing one of his photographs, well then good for them.

He did not elaborate on why he felt that way, but it might be a combination of understanding that the battle might not be worth waging and feeling comfortable with his own success as a photographer.

Dave’s images have appeared in numerous books, including several he has co-authored. Magazines regularly pay him for use of his photographs.

He knows what retailers know that you do what you can to protect your property but some loss from theft is part of the cost of doing business.

There Goes the Circus Train for Good

January 15, 2017


I only caught the circus train once. That occurred on Nov. 5, 2011, during a railfanning excursion to Pittsburgh. We didn’t know it was there and happened to just see it.

It was sitting in Norfolk Southern’s Island Avenue Yard (shown above) so I made a few images and then we moved on. I haven’t seen it since.

on-photography-newNow, it turns out that is likely to be the only time that I photograph the circus train.

Citing diminished ticket sales and high operating costs, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced on Saturday (Jan.14) that it is ending its traveling circus shows in May.

Some railroad photographers treated the circus train like an NS heritage unit.

When it was on the move, social media would light up with reports of its sighting.

There are three circus trains still operating. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has two trains, named red and blue, that crisscross the country. James E. Strates Shows also has a train.

But it was the Ringling trains that were best known among railfans.

Although the circus train was a regular visitor in Northeast Ohio, catching it wasn’t always easy.

Typically, the train would load after the last performance in a given city and then depart for the next stop on the circuit.

Often, the circus train would pass through our area in the dark, which is one reason why I never made an effort to catch it.

I have a great interest in passenger trains, but the circus train just never had much appeal to me.

It operated with run-of-the-mill freight locomotives and being a very long train and I was never sure how to get an image that would show more than a few cars.

It would have been a nice catch, but was never very high on my “to do” or “wish” lists.

In looking at a couple chat lists to gauge the railfan community’s reaction to the news of the end of the Ringling circus, I found the expected anguished cries of “no, it can’t be” mixed among nostalgic memories of having seen the circus as a kid.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Ringling Bros circus. My hometown in east central Illinois was too small for Ringling to play.

I do have a memory of going to a smaller circus and being disappointed. Maybe that colored my attitude toward chasing the circus train in recent years.

I’ve never had any interest as an adult in seeing the circus and it is just one more thing whose time seems to have passed.

Will the circus train be missed? Maybe, but I wonder how many railfans saying “oh, no” have actually chased the circus train.

It seems to be a situation similar to the decline of passenger trains in the 1960s. The number of people decrying the loss of intercity rail passenger service was far greater than the number who rode the trains.

Losing something that has always been there tends to evoke an emotional response in many. And so it seems to be with the circus train.

I Felt Good About the Return of My Friend Etkachrome Even if Only for a Fleeting Moment

January 9, 2017

I don’t use film anymore but found interesting the news that Kodak is bringing back Etkachrome slide film.

on-photography-newI was a big user of Etkachrome until I bought a DSLR camera in July 2011. I shot my last frame of slide film a year later.

The rebirth of Etkachrome is good news for such slide shooters in the Akron Railroad Club as Marty Surdyk, Jim Mastromatteo, Richard Antibus, Don Woods and Dave Shepherd.

Kodak Alaris, the company that took over Kodak’s film products, said there has been increasing interest in analog photography and sales of film products are on the rise.

Those making images of railroad operations on film can expect to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Yet I am reminded of a discussion we had at Eat ‘n Park last year during the post-ARRC meeting social hour about how the last lab in Akron that does E6 processing would be discontinuing that service.

Marty said he had a couple of rolls of film that were being held “hostage” by Cleveland-based Dodd Camera because the machine it uses for E6 processing was broken and it wasn’t certain when or if it would get fixed.

The upshot of those developments is that local photographers might need to ship their slide film by mail to get it processed.

The availability of slide film is unlikely to become any more convenient than it has been for the past several years. You have to visit a camera store to buy it or order it by mail.

Nor is the return of Etkachrome likely to signal a substantial return to film among railroad photographers.

In reading the comments on a photography website about the Etkachrome revival, I got the impression that film is a niche market heavily populated by professionals and serious amateurs who are invested in digital and film alike.

Film has its advantages, but cost is not one of them. Many who posted spoke about the high cost of buying and processing film, which can average around a dollar a slide.

If you want to show your slides to the world, you just about have to digitize them because there are few opportunities to see slides projected on a screen or wall. Social media is a digital world.

Although I grew up in a film world and most of my photography career has been in film, I sold my Canon Rebel G after going digital and there is a zero chance I’ll go back to film. The advantages of digital photography are just too many.

Emotional attachment and reaction is at the heart of photography. The return of Etkachrome is like hearing from a friend you haven’t been in touch with for several years who was once a big part of your life.

Even if the renewal of that friendship is fleeting, it feels good to know that he is still alive and well even if living a diminished life.

Oh, How Dark Room Work is Easier Now

August 22, 2016


When I was young, I had access to my Dad’s darkroom, so I began railfanning using black and white film.

For me it was dangerous. Film developing and printing consisted of dangerous chemicals, a sealed room in which I’d breathe their vapors, and the foolishness of youth in not wearing gloves but dipping my hands in the chemicals.

It also was time consuming and hard to get a really good image.

Today, with Lightroom and Photoshop, this is done digitally with much better control over each step.

First the image is scanned into the computer. With the scanner maker’s provided software there are many controls over the outcome simply by using the software for general corrections.

Then comes Lightroom where the image is digitally manipulated with far greater precision than could be done in a darkroom in a similar amount of time.

Not only are there exposure and contrast, there are sliders for highlights, shadows, saturation, cutting down on grain using noise reduction, etc., along with being able to remove chromatic aberration, clone out scratches, etc.

Next comes Photoshop for the finishing tweaks, including cloning out those hard to remove tiny defects and sizing the image for use on different sites.

Here is Canadian Pacific 4074 sitting in the CP roundhouse in Toronto in June 1972. The detail, contrast, exposure were all changed or improved along with other tweaks.

Could I do this in a darkroom? Perhaps, if I had many hours.

Thankfully, I live in 2016. While the late 1960s was a wonderful time to railfan, I’d hate to be limited to only that period’s technology.

After all, only a few could see a railfan’s work this way instead of putting the images on sites like this blog where many can share and enjoy various railfans’ work.

Article and Photograph by Robert Farkas


On Photography: Some Lessons To be Drawn From an Artist-Photographer’s 4-Year Exploration of Traveling Across Amerca Aboard Amtrak

May 2, 2016

I’ve long had an interest in how a master photographer who is not necessarily a railfan might approach photographing railroad operations. What would he or she see that the typical railfan overlooks or doesn’t think about?

Hence, I was drawn to an article at the website about San Francisco photographer McNair Evans and his exhibit In Search of Great Men, which is on display at San Francisco City Hall through Nov. 18.

Evans spent four years riding Amtrak for two weeks at a time twice a year. The exhibit highlights what he saw and captured during those trips, a view of Amtrak travel through the camera of an artisan photographer.

If you lack the time or money – or both – to travel to the West Coast you can sample the exhibit by clicking on the link below.

I haven’t seen the complete exhibit, only the sample available at It was enough to intrigue me.

On Photography Logo-xEvans did not focus on what a typical railfan photographer might emphasize. He was more interested in the people riding the train and their stories of why they were traveling.

One theme he developed was how people appear on a long-distance train after having ridden in a coach seat all night.

“The long-haulers interest me the most because at that point, why aren’t you flying?” Evans told the San Francisco Chronicle.

They weren’t flying because the train was more economical, they enjoyed train travel or they had an aversion to flying.

Evans, 36, is not without a railroad background.

A biographical sketch posted at sfac said that the North Carolina native spent summers as a teenager on a track gang for a short-line railroad.

A passenger car that his grandfather once owned is on display in North Carolina.

But it was a summer 2011 trip from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia, that sparked his interest in what became his “great men” project.

“I felt in love at the time, so the romance of this short ride really swept me away,” Evans told “We passed the backs of manufacturing facilities, Little League Baseball games, and tobacco fields where individuals worked with traditional hoes and rakes. I was drawn to the passengers on that route that not surprisingly mirrored the surroundings. They were very receptive to my camera.”

Between 2012 and 2014 Evans rode Amtrak for two weeks at a time and would spend 16 to 18 hours a day making photographs. As a college student Evans studied anthropology and in a sense his train trips were anthropological expeditions.

Aboard the train he looked for passengers who caught his attention through such traits as the color of their clothing, the meal they were eating or the way they laughed.

He asked them to write out a narrative explaining something about their lives and why they were aboard the train.

“It provides a safe place for them to share their story and a rich source for me to explore each person’s emotional nuances through his writing,” Evans said. “The idea of a single perspective project felt self-indulgent, distant, and one-dimensional.”

Evans said he rides the train because of the human interactions it provides. “I’m there because I love people, observing them, learning from them, and finding common ground between our lives. For a romantic humanist like me, it’s a wonderful way to travel,” he said.

Not all of Evans’s photographs are of people. He also made images of what could be seen from the train, including such things as the underside of a highway bridge.

A description of the “Great Men” exhibit at sfac described it as a combination of “compelling portrait and landscape photography alongside photo-documentation of pages from first-person, passenger-written journals, offering the viewer a poignant and empathetic view of the diverse cross-section of travelers he encountered . . .”

Among those whose stories he tells are an Amish family traveling to Tijuana for medical treatment, a single mother commuting to the North Dakota oil fields, and a teenage son hoping to reunite with his father.

“At a time when such travel may soon be only a memory, this show explores that search for something just out of reach and a bit intangible,” Evans said. “It is about the desire for change and the possibility of hope fulfilled.”

I found myself admiring how Evans was able to get the people he met aboard the train to cooperate with him.

Most people do not embark on a journey expecting to be photographed or approached by a stranger asking them to tell their life story.

I’ve had interesting conversations with people aboard Amtrak, but more often than not those occurred during meals in the dining car. Many – although not all – of those you dine with aboard a train want to socialize.

I also know that many people are self-conscious about being photographed and suspicious of your motives for wanting to photograph them.

When traveling aboard a train, I try to make images of people who aren’t looking at me or who seem unaware of my presence.

Evans used that tactic, too, but at other times he created portraits of willing subjects.

Doing that takes a certain amount of people skills and even courage that many railfan photographers – myself included – don’t have.

You have to have a photojournalist mindset in order to board a train and start firing away at your fellow passengers with a camera. Having an extroverted personality also helps.

There is an art to approaching people and getting them to agree to be photographed. Evans probably has plenty of stories to tell about people who were cool if not hostile to his work.

He probably reached a certain comfort level with people before pulling out his camera. I’d bet he has developed a feel for what type of person is amenable to being portrayed in a photograph.

It is not just people that Evans photographed during his journeys. He didn’t overlook details that we take for granted because we’ve seen them a thousand times.

One of Evans’ images shows a menu for the Capitol Limited tucked between a wall and the back of a booth as late day light streams through a window.

Such detail helps to tell a larger story by showing a nuance about the experience you are seeking to capture.

Another lesson is to view that experience through the perspective of someone unfamiliar with it.

Most Americans have never ridden Amtrak, let along taken a cross-country trip by rail. To them, Amtrak is just another way to travel yet they might even think of it as romantic because that is how train travel long has been portrayed. What would a person unfamiliar with Amtrak travel or any other experience focus on if seeing or experiencing it for the first time?

And then there are the people at the center of the experience. They do not have to be doing extraordinary endeavors. Some of Evans’s most interesting images portray ordinary people doing an ordinary thing. As much as train travel has been romanticized, it is, for most travelers, an ordinary experience.

But it wasn’t just travelers who Evans captured. One image shows a young man watching the Southwest Chief pass a McDonald’s restaurant in Trinidad, Colorado.

Perhaps that man views the train as a summons to travel to some faraway place for the excitement of discovery of something new, as a means to escape something that is haunting him, or something that is attractive because it is moving.

Whatever the reason why they watch trains go by, people alongside the tracks are a part of the railroad experience.

Evans’ work shows what you can accomplish if you are willing to spend the time to study something in depth and put in extensive work documenting it.

It also shows the value of theme development, which often results from familiarity with your subject matter. Theme development, after all, is the difference between a story and a mere collection of photographs.

Maybe It Was All About the Pursuit of Perfection

April 8, 2016

I was killing time at the Lakeland train show a few weeks ago when I picked up an issue of Trains magazine from the 1990s to leaf through.

Catching my attention was a letter to the editor pertaining to an article published in the September 1995 issue about the man who shot perfect photographs.

I dug through the pile of magazines and found the article in question because I was curious who it was and what made his photographs “perfect.”

On Photography Logo-xThe photographer was the late Robert O. Hale and the article author was Richard Steinheimer, who some might say also made “perfect” photographs.

Hale worked in the western United States, particularly California, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Steinheimer wrote that he first encountered Hale’s work in Trains around 1950.

For those who liked Hale’s work, Steinheimer wrote, he was a “superman of rail photography.”

According to Steinheimer, all of Hale’s images were properly filtered and cropped, and he had an “independent personal style.”

However, the article never explained what constitutes a perfect photograph and how and why Hale’s work fit that description.

Terms such as “perfect” and “perfection” might seem to have a definitive meaning, but wind up being rather nebulous because of the casual and careless manner in which they are used.

What constitutes “perfect” has caused me some anguish over the years, particularly when I was grading essay exams written by college students.

I was loath to award the maximum point value for an essay, usually 50 or 100 points, because the maximum score meant that the answer was “perfect.”

“Perfect” meant nothing more could have been done to improve upon the response.

If more could have been said or it what was said could have been presented in a more skillful manner, then the response was not perfect because it was flawed.

That, though, raised the question of how a mere mortal could determine that a performance was without any flaws.

I eventually came around to thinking that “perfection” when it came to college student essays is context-specific.

My standard became that the student did the best that an undergraduate could reasonably be expected to do given how much time he or she had to answer the question.

That is still a tough standard to judge, but I’ve found it easier to deal with than a rule that to be perfect something has to be without any flaws.

The letter to the editor about the Steinheimer article on Hale’s photographs asserted that the latter’s work was very good and some of it was unique, but it was not perfect.

The letter writer also failed to define what is meant by “perfect,” but after looking at some of the photographs that illustrated Steinheimer’s piece, the letter writer probably had in mind the fact that some of Hale’s images of steam locomotives did not show the entire locomotive.

Whether Hale made perfect photographs or not, his story was interesting and quite reflective of the era in which he worked.

He might make just one or two photographs a day and had a rather laid-back attitude toward his work.

He didn’t spend endless hours waiting for a train. Either the train he wanted to photograph came or it didn’t.

Hale’s day did not begin early. He often would visit with railroad block operators, finding out during those chats what was coming.

Then he would make a plan to photograph trains at a specific location. Hale was not one to engage in “death marches” to reach distant and rugged locales, but he did like to get out into the countryside.

Steinheimer wrote that when Hale had a vision for a particular image, he stayed with it until he had captured just the right train in just the right light with just the right clarity.

It probably was that quality that prompted Steinheimer to conclude that Hale made perfect photographs.

Hale honed his photographic skill during his U.S. Navy service. Steinheimer noted that Hale had worked long and hard to perfect his technique of making images of landing aircraft.

That level of development led Steinheimer to observe that not all great talent appears spontaneously. It must be developed, even by those who possess much natural talent.

I still don’t know what constitutes a perfect photograph or whether Hale made such images. What seems clear, though, from Steinheimer’s article is that Hale practiced the pursuit of perfection.

Hale mastered the little things that work together to make images that evoke an emotional response from a viewer by capturing a strong sense of time and place. Today, we call this “nailing it.”

One of his strengths was his ability to visualize an image and then have the patience to try multiple times if necessary to attain it.

He was a student of the craft. That didn’t make him unique, but it did elevate him to the upper echelon of his peers.

We should all feel that we’ve accomplished a great deal if someone can someday say that about any of us whether we did or did not make perfect photographs.

Lack of Planning, Practice Will Land Your Program on Left Edge of Presentation Spectrum

March 23, 2016

The lights come on at the conclusion of an Akron Railroad Club meeting program. You ask the guy sitting next to you what he thought of the program you both just viewed.

Chances are the answer will be brief. Either it was good or it was bad. Some might be polite and use a less harsh word than bad. Whatever the language used, the response tends to be the good-bad dichotomy.

On Photography Logo-xThink about it some more, though, and you realize that programs fall on a continuum between those extremes.

Think of good as falling on the far right side of the continuum and bad on the far left side.

Let’s explore the left side, which is not necessarily a mirror opposite of the right side.

Programs that fall toward the left side have a few positive qualities that you will also find on the right side. But left side programs are there because they have a series of deficiencies and not just one major shortcoming.

Typically, left side programs suffer from mediocre image quality and lack of effective organization and structure.

Most, if not all, of the images shown have average to poor composition along with such technical deficiencies as under and over exposure.

More than anything else, though, poor organization and execution lands a program on the left side.

I remember a program in which the presenter used software that advanced his images in a timed sequence.

The images raced along faster than the presenter could explain them. Many images went unexplained because there was no way to catch up.

I’ve also seen programs in which the ordering of the images was baffling. We’d be looking at images made in Colorado and then the program would cut back to Ohio for no apparent reason.

Such programs lack a logical progression to the order in which images are presented.

Combine mediocre images, lack of logical order and a presenter who is winging it and you have a program that can’t end soon enough.

The presenter has not rehearsed or scripted his program. He hasn’t thought much, if at all, about how to integrate his commentary into a well-developed theme.

Lack of theme and focus are two hallmarks of a not-so-well organized program. Maybe the presenter had a focal point in mind, but failed to explain it adequately.

Most programs at ARRC meetings tend to fall toward the middle of the spectrum with some flirting with left end territory.

I’ve yet to see a true stream of consciousness approach in a program even if some had characteristics of that.

Stream of consciousness presenting occurs when the speaker talks about whatever pops into his head at any given moment. It can be entertaining, but not necessarily informative or insightful.

There are many reasons why programs turn out as they do. Aside from what inadequate preparation, a key factor is the personality of the presenter.

Some presenters tend not be well organized in most things they do in life. Why would presenting a program be any different?

In fairness, most who present at ARRC meetings have few opportunities to practice and hone their presentation skills in front of a live audience. Inexperience and lack of mentoring prevent them from doing a better job.

You can’t easily change your personality but you can change your approach. Start by studying programs with an eye toward identifying the characteristics of the best presentations.

Knowing what makes a good program and being able to execute one are not the same thing. You must be willing to put in the time needed to plan and practice.

Many presenters don’t want to do that and it’s almost a sure thing that their programs will fall toward the far left end of the quality spectrum.

Sometimes a Photograph is as Much About the Photographer as it is the Scene Being Potrayed

March 15, 2016

CP 1293 at Pearl

Sometimes you see in a photograph something you didn’t see and/or understand at the time that you made the image. That something may tell you something about yourself.

That happened to me recently as I reviewed slides that I had made during an Akron Railroad Club steam excursion on the Ohio Central on Oct. 4, 2003. The trip featured former Canadian Pacific No. 1293 pulling the train from Sugarcreek to Morgan Run.

The train had halted at Pearl and many of the passengers disembarked to watch and/or photograph the photo runby.

Unloading had occurred at the crossing of a driveway that led to a cheese company store. A photo line then formed on that road.

There is an open grass field between the tracks and the cheese store and some folks stood in various places in that field behind the photo line.

On Photography Logo-xI walked to the far end of the field and stood in some brush just beyond the edge of that field where the property owner had stopped mowing the grass.

I don’t clearly remember why I did that. I had been at photo runbys involving steam locomotives before and was aware of the common practice of establishing a photo line.

I had stood in photo lines myself. I had also stood apart from photo lines because I wanted to get my “own” angle on the image.

But on this day I seemed oblivious to the existence of the photo line.

I have a vague recollection of having walked far from the photo line in an effort to create some open space.

But, as you can see in the image above, that plan was foiled when three folks stepped up close to the edge of the ballast of the tracks with the apparent same idea that I had.

I wasn’t pleased, but not necessarily upset. The behavior of people at photo runbys can be an interesting study in itself.

The guy wearing the hat must have seen me for he kneeled down in order to become less of an obstruction.

It wasn’t until I was reviewing this image that I realized that my standing far away from the photo line says something about me that transcended my desire for a good image.

At the time of this trip, I had been a member of the ARRC for less than two months.

I knew just one person in the club, the late David McKay, and recognized a few other faces I had seen at other railroad related events. But I didn’t know those people at the time.

I still felt like an outsider and my walking to the far end of the photo runby site probably reflected a subconscious lack of level of comfort with this group.

It was for that same reason that I skipped the dinner after the trip at the Swiss Hat restaurant in Sugarcreek.

I’ve also never been one to enjoy being in a crowd so that might have played a role in where I chose to stand.

Throughout the trip I mostly kept to myself and this photograph is a reminder of that.

The image also reminds me of why I’m glad that I now have a digital camera.

You may have noticed that the train is quite some distance from my location. “Best practices” composition techniques say that I should have waited a second or two longer before tripping the shutter.

But if you look at images that I made during this era, I was notorious for making photographs too soon. It is a common error made by novice photographers.

The train looks larger and closer in the viewfinder than it actually is. I have a lot of photographs with tons of “empty space” between me and the front of an oncoming train.

My Canon Rebel G camera could only expose one frame of film per second. My digital Canon 60D can expose five frames per second.

In a way, though, the presence of those bystanders who initially annoyed me saved the photograph.

Another way of looking at the image is that it is about what people do when they watch trains. It is not so much about the train itself even if that was my primary subject matter. In this image the train turned out to be secondary.

I still think this would be a better image if I had waited a little longer for the train to come to me. But if I had, it would not have the dramatic smoke action of this image.

I did make a photo of the locomotive much closer to where I was standing and the amount of smoke coming from the stack had greatly diminished.

By the time the 1293 got to the end of the field, the train had started to slow in preparation for a stop and back-up move.

In 2004, the ARRC had another steam trip on the Ohio Central with the 1293. By then I had gotten to know some people in the club and in fact had been approached about running for president because Dave planned to retire after 12 years in that position.

During the 2004 trip, I stood on the photo line with everyone else. I also went to dinner after the trip at the Swiss Hat and enjoyed talking with those at my table.

My comfort zone had greatly expanded to include even those in the ARRC I didn’t yet know.

Would You Have Made This Photograph?

March 7, 2016

Engineer eat-x

Would you have taken this photograph? Would you have posted it on a railfan website?

I can answer “yes” to both those questions. Let me tell you about what happened.

The photograph shows Gary Bensman eating a sandwich in the engineer’s seat of Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive No. 765 in Ashtabula, Ohio, last July.

The locomotive was being ferried to Youngstown for Saturday and Sunday excursions on the Youngstown Line of Norfolk Southern.

On Photography Logo-xThe 765 and its train went into a siding in Ashtabula to get a pilot crew and to wait for the westbound NS train 145 to go past.

This photograph wasn’t planned. I was waiting for the 765 to move on when I noticed that the engineer – I didn’t know his name at the time – was eating a sandwich.

At that point my journalistic instincts took over.

I posted this image with other photographs of the NKP 765 on I posted most of those images on the steam board where they were well received.

That was where I learned the identity of this engineer and that he has pulled the throttle on many, if not most, of the mainline steam locomotives in America.

But I posted this and some other photos on the eastern railroads board and that is when the “fun” started.

Shortly after those images went up, a guy I know casually and who lives in the Akron area wrote a one-line comment suggesting the photograph was a little too personal.

Another irate poster changed the heading to use the word “inappropriate” and spewed some ridiculous rhetoric.

I should have expected such comments, but somehow I didn’t and they caught me by surprise.

No one likes having their work criticized even if you have to expect that when you perform for the public. By the afternoon, a few other critical comments had been posted and I became angry.

As much as anything I was upset because none of the critics explained why he thought the photograph was inappropriate, too personal or wrong.

Instead, they just gave one-liners that said little more than “I don’t like it.” No one seemed to grasp the story that the photograph sought to tell.

* * * * *

It had been a long day for the NKP 765 crew. They had gone on duty early that morning and waited in Rockport Yard for permission to leave. Then they had to wait for a parade of NS trains to go past or around them.

Such is life for a ferry move of a steam locomotive.

By the time they reached Ashtabula it was late afternoon and there were still many miles to go before tying up for the day.

They didn’t have the luxury of stopping for a lunch break. In such circumstances you grab a bite to eat when and where you can. Bensman was eating a sandwich he had brought along and ate while sitting in the engineer’s seat.

The photograph illustrates a facet of the life of a steam locomotive crew. Yet that seemed lost on some who viewed and commented on this image.

* * * * *

Implied in the criticism of the photograph is the belief that I invaded the engineer’s privacy. In that way of thinking, eating is a private matter that is not of public concern and therefore should not be photographed.

And what about the fact that the engineer was eating his sandwich in a place where he could be seen by others?

The response might be, “Well, that’s true, but you don’t photograph people engaging in private moments even when they can easily be seen in public.”

And therein lies the crux of the matter and how my thinking differs from that of many railfans.

Kenneth Kobré is the author of a textbook on photojournalism used in college-level photojournalism courses.

He writes in the first chapter that candid photographs are what set photojournalism pictures apart from other types of photography. “The photojournalism style depends on catching candid moments,” Kobré wrote.

And that is what I saw when I noticed the engineer of the NKP 765 eating a sandwich.

As I read the one-liners from those who thought this photograph was inappropriate, I was reminded of final exam of a photojournalism course that I taught a couple years ago.

I showed my students a photo made by Arne Svenson, a professional photographer who makes images of people going about their lives inside their apartments in New York City.

Svenson uses a telephoto lens that he aims from the street or an adjacent building toward the windows of apartments to make photographs.

His approach is controversial because none of those he photographs are aware that they are being captured nor does he seek their permission before displaying their images in galleries or selling his work.

I would not do what Svenson does. I draw a line between what people do in their homes where they can expect a high degree of privacy and what they do in public where they should expect to be seen by others.

A steam locomotive attracts a lot of attention. There aren’t that many of them that are operational and when they travel large number of people turn out to watch.

Many of those spectators will make photographs of the locomotive and its crew. The NKP 765 crew knows this. They also know that much of what they do will be seen by the public.

They can expect their activities to be photographed, including taking a lunch break while sitting in a place where they can easily be seen.

That argument probably won’t win over the critics of this photograph. They would probably respond with, “yeah, but you still shouldn’t have posted this photograph.”

* * * * *

One of those who responded pointed out that the image showed what could easily be seen in a public place and therefore by law was not an invasion of privacy. That’s correct but doesn’t address the underlying ethical issue.

I hammer home the point when teaching that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical.

On the same exam in which I posed questions about the ethical dimensions of the work of Arne Svenson, I also showed an image made by a photographer working on behalf of a wire service.

The image showed a woman grieving at a memorial in honor of the 26 people killed in a December 2012 shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

The woman was angry because the photographer did not ask her permission before making the photograph.

“All of a sudden I hear ‘click click click click click’ all over the place. And there are people in the bushes, all around me, and they are photographing me, and now I’m pissed. I felt like a zoo animal,” she said later.

The photographer, Emmanuel Dunand, later told National Public Radio that he was simply doing his job of making photos to “help tell the story to the world.” He said he didn’t ask for the woman’s permission in order to not bother her and to respect her private moment.

A lot of people probably won’t buy Dunand’s explanation and that’s fine.

Yet I see a difference between photographing someone who is grieving and someone who is engaging in a mundane everyday life activity.

I understand that a personal moment is a personal moment. But not all personal moments are alike. Some are more personal than others.

A person eating a sandwich in public is not in as vulnerable of a position as a person grieving shortly after a tragic event.

* * * *  *

I’ve never worked as a railroader so I can’t speak from experience as to what it is like to go to work and be subjected to being photographed because others find your work and your employer’s equipment to be fascinating.

Few people find what I’ve done for a living to be fascinating enough to photograph.

Some railroaders don’t like being photographed while on the job while others are indifferent about it.

What bothers those who dislike being photographed at work is their lack of control. They have no way of stopping photographers from making images or showing them to others.

I understand Dunand’s point about just doing his job. I also understand the point made by the grieving woman of feeling violated during a highly personal moment.

The courts pretty much have settled the conflict of whether it is or is not an invasion of privacy to photograph someone without their permission if their activities occur or can easily be seen in a public place. The ethical issue, though, is far from settled and probably never will be.

To be sure, there are nuances in the law and not everything done in public is fair game for photographers. But your public activities are public property to a degree that makes many people uncomfortable.

Ideally, photographers should always ask permission before photographing others. But it doesn’t always work that way.

* * * * *

The vast majority of railroad-oriented photographs that I’ve seen online or in railroad club programs are devoid of people.

It’s a challenge to make human-interest photographs when track side because the machinery dwarfs and obscures those operating it.

Most of those who enjoy photographing railroad operations are primarily interested in the machines and not necessarily those who operate them.

Photographs such as the one I posted above are not the norm in railfan world and some would rather keep it that way.

I don’t know if Gary Bensman saw this photograph or what he thought about it if he did. I wasn’t thinking about that when I made the image or when I posted it. I simply saw a moment and recorded it.

It told a story and ultimately that is what photographers do. They tell stories with images.

All of us who consider ourselves photographers must decide what type of stories that we will and will not tell with our photographs. Our work reflects those choices that we’ve made and the values that we bring to the endeavor of photography.