Posts Tagged ‘David P. Morgan’

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

October 11, 2018

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.

Are Today’s Master Photographers Legendary Photographers?

August 9, 2018

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.

On Photography: Nailing It

March 29, 2015

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