You’re looking at the first photograph that I ever made of Norfolk & Western No. 611.
OK, so technically, it isn’t the first image that I made on this day of the fabled J Class steam locomotive. That would have been an image that I made aboard the train.
But in that image you can hardly tell that the locomotive up front is the 611.
It is Sunday, May 21, 1989, somewhere in Indiana during a round-trip excursion between Chicago and Fort Wayne that was part of the original Norfolk Southern steam program.
It was my first experience with the 611, whether riding behind it, photographing it or just seeing it.
I ran across the negative for this photo last December while looking for images to scan and post online.
As you can tell, the 611 was executing a photo runby. This is, to my knowledge, the first photo runby I ever experienced.
When I ran across this photo last year my initial thought was that it is, well, mediocre.
I don’t like having all of those people cluttering up the image and blocking the view of the train. The running gear is obscured in shadows. The locomotive nose is not sharp and crisp.
Of course, having people in the photo is a byproduct of the event. The shadows resulted from the time of day and location at which the photo runby was held. The lack of sharpness is a result of the camera equipment I had and the film I used.
There was little to nothing I could do about those factors. At least the locomotive nose isn’t obscured by the spectators and there is a glimpse of the countryside just beyond the locomotive nose.
I would later ride behind and photograph the 611 on other excursions, the last of which occurred on July 30, 1994, on a trip from Erie to Rocky River during which the 611 was added to the train in Conneaut.
That would be the last time that I saw the 611 in steam. The next time I saw it was in May 2011 on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
All of my photographs of the 611 in action were made on color negative film so I went through my albums to find a better photograph of the 4-8-4 than the one that I had made in May 1989.
Much to my dismay there weren’t any. I didn’t make all that many photographs of the 611 and it turned out that that May 1989 image probably is my best.
There was much that I didn’t know about photography back then, particularly about how to photograph a steam locomotive in general and the 611 in particular.
It is possible to get good images of a steam locomotive during a photo runby, but it can be a supreme challenge.
There will always be people around and photo runby locations are chosen more on the basis of crowd control and safety considerations than for the aesthetics of the scene.
The time of day chosen for the runby has more to do with operating considerations than it does with maximizing lighting conditions for photographers.
In short, photo runbys during excursions are a series of compromises. You have to rely a lot on the cooperation of others to not mess up your photographs.
The August 2015 issue of Trains magazine has a story about the return of the 611 after its restoration that is illustrated by two of the best images I’ve ever seen of the locomotive in action.
Neither was made during a photo runby. The photographer chose a location to maximize visual impact and lighting conditions. He didn’t have to live with compromises made by others.
There are no bystanders in either image, just a locomotive and its train steaming through the countryside. There is an aura of authenticity and drama to those photographs that tends to be lacking in a staged photo runby shot.
As flawed as my May 1989 image of the 611 may be as a photograph, though, I still see some value in it.
It tells a story of life on the photo line during a photo runby. It is my photo, my story and evidence that I was there. I have many memories of that trip and this photograph helps to bring those back.
And it has the quality of showing me where I was as a photographer at one moment in time.
At this writing, there are no plans to bring the 611 to Ohio in 2015 as part of the Norfolk Southern 21st Century steam program.
Maybe the 611 will never run in Ohio again and I’ll never have the opportunity to photograph it in action.
But if that opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it. I’ve learned a few things since 1989 about how to photograph steam locomotives and how to make better quality images generally.
Photographing the 611 will still be a challenge, but I’ll be looking forward to it.
Photograph and Commentary by Craig Sanders