DECISIVE MOMENTS from 30 YEARS
of RAILFAN PHOTOGRAPHY

This essay originally appeared in the June 2011 Railroads Illustrated magazine. It has been updated with additional photos.

Envisioning a classic scene of smoke streaming from two doubleheaded steam locomotives, I was very frustrated when the brisk winds at Hermosa, Wyoming on Union Pacific's Sherman Hill transcontinental line whipped 8444's smoke down and back to completely obscure the trailing 3985 on their cross country trip west to the Sacramento Rail Fair in April, 1981. But over 25 years later I fell in love with this dramatic and unusual decisive moment caused by those winds. Pentax 6x7, 75mm lens and Tri-X film.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who in the mid-20th century was a pioneer in street photojournalism, coined the phrase "the Decisive Moment" to describe his ideal photograph. He liked this ability of the camera to "fix eternity in an instant," when that instant displayed a most unusual pose or peak of action. You may have seen one of Henri's most famous decisive moment images, "Behind the Gare St. Lazare," a silhouette of a man leaping, in mid-air with legs spread, perfectly reflected in a large puddle of water. That one brief instant to trip the shutter to best capture the most compelling image to freeze a dramatic moment in time is what I love the most about photography. Maybe a moment not seen or truly appreciated by the naked eye, nor noticed in a movie or video film. Maybe that one brief moment that will make the viewer pause and think, "Wow!," even if subliminally.

In addition, I like to incorporate artistic elements into my photography, as I find this helps to emphasize that decisive moment. Much, I feel, as did Henri's use of backlighting make his puddle leaper image more compelling. I learned photography as part of an art degree in college. In addition to the nuts and bolts of exposing and developing film and prints, the "focus" of the photography curriculum was photography as art, by using artistic elements of line, contrast, and texture. In the ensuing 35-plus years, I have enjoyed photographing many different subjects, from scenics to sports, wildlife and nature, ghost towns and rodeo, and trains. Always, even as a newspaper photojournalist, I am looking to produce a more dramatic, even artistic, photo that might also capture a decisive moment.


Incorporating artistic elements helps to emphasize that decisive moment. As Henri's use of backlighting make his puddle leaper image more compelling, so too does backlighting to create foreground silhouettes as brakeman Ralph Whitlock of the Louisiana & Northwest RR waits in the foggy mist typical of a southern morning, as his engineer moves their F-units out of the one-stall engine house to begin switching their train in McNeil, Arkansas. Photo taken with an Olympus XA on Plus-X film.

I also look for elements in a scene other than the train to emphasize my railroading subjects. Long paralleling rails stretching off to the horizon, especially with multiple tracks, switches, and curves. Especially with strong side or backlighting making the rails shine bright. Especially when a telephoto makes uneven sections of rail look "wrinkled." Especially when punctuated by the massive, angular forms of locomotives, made all the more angular by rendering them in a semi- or full silhouette. I especially like the composition of S-curves, as well as using a tele to emphasize the steepness of grade.

I love S-curves when emphasized with a tele (400mm used here), especially when there is a dramatic element such as these mid-train helpers on a Denver & Rio Grande Western coal load at Yarmony siding in western Colorado on the D&RGW (now UP) "Moffat Line," back in the 1980s when - like God intended - the Rio Grande ran the Moffat.

Short (78 feet) Tunnel 29 east of Pinecliffe, Colorado on the Rio Grande "Moffat Line" west of Denver. Taken in the 1980s with a 400mm lens from a safe location amongst huge boulders across the tracks, this is not only a decisive moment of railroading drama, but a decisive moment in time, as tree growth now obscures this camera angle.

Union Pacific 4-8-4 #8444 smokes it up for a photo run-by on a 1981 railroad club photo excursion in northeastern Colorado. Environmentalist protests aside, that magnificent smoke and the resulting shadows on the hillside portray a classic decisive moment out of the past. Pentax 6x7, Tri-X film.

Being a lover of cloudy and rainy days (even for photography), during a trip in May 2003 to a Cass, West Virginia steam photo train event I was very pleased to awaken to a drizzly, dark morning. This shot of pusher Shay #2 (with an idler flatcar between our passenger gondola), was taken as we passed through a cloud while climbing Cheat Mountain. I love the "old tyme" feel resulting from the gritty looking weather and grainy, fast speed film (35mm Tri-X pushed to ISO 1200) necessary to freeze motion in the low light, even with a fast f/1.4 lens.
Henri did most of his photography with a 35mm Leica and 50mm or wide angle lens. Unlike Henri, I have used a wide range of camera types, from an original school-issued 6x6 Yashica Twin Lens Reflex to 35mm, to 6x7, 4x5, point-and-shoots, and now digital. (When I first saw a 35mm camera after using the 12 shot TLR, I was wowed at the notion of a camera that could take 36 shots on one roll!) But even though the bulk of my shooting is now digital, I have a problem getting rid of a camera that has given me such great photos in the past. I also miss the "good old days" of "manual" photography. Consequentially I will occasionally run some good old fashioned Tri-X film through my Pentax 6x7 or vintage YashicaMat TLR, my old fashioned all-manual Nikon FM, or rangefinder Hasselblad X-Pan panoramic camera.

After learning photography using B&W film and later graduating to slides, in the years since I have had my different film periods. Much, I like to think, as did famous artists who have gone through their "Blue Period," or "Impressionism," or "Cubism" periods. Long stints of shooting virtually nothing but Kodachrome 64, then periods of ISO 25 Tech Pan B&W film, then nothing but Tri-X 400 speed film. I especially love using high grain 1200 to 3200 ISO films on steam trains. Around 1980, after reading about Ansel Adams' work with his Zone System for black and white scenic photography, I decided I wanted that type of tonal quality in my B&W train photos. Although I never used the Zone System, as you can see from the accompanying selection of some of my favorite "decisive moments" from my 30-plus years of train photography, the bulk of my work has been, and continues to be, in B&W, be it with film capture or digital.

In this regard, I take a lot of my inspiration for my train photography from the B&W work of Richard Steinheimer, Phil Hastings, and Martin Burwash. All worked extensively in medium format with B&W film, giving their photos a certain "look" that I have always loved.


A Cumbres & Toltec Scenic passenger train pounds up through an S-curve on the 4% climb to Cumbres Pass in the southern Colorado Rocky Mountains on a September, 1985 chilly, rainy day. It was the first opportunity I had to photograph doubleheaded steam narrow gauge locomotives, and the effect of the cold, misty weather on the smoke helped create, for me, this most memorable and "decisive" moment. Pentax 6x7, 75mm lens, Tri-X pushed to ISO 800.


In March 2007 I was waiting by the UP "Moffat Line" in Rollinsville, Colorado, hoping to capture the afternoon Denver bound Rio Grande Ski Train in dramatic late afternoon lighting and kicking up a swirl of snow. This westbound UP train came by first, the long string of locomotives making a much better subject for this planned decisive moment.


Union Pacific U30C 2928 is briefly positioned perfectly by the block signals against the light of a breaking dawn over the eastern Colorado plains, as it pauses in its switching moves at La Salle, Colorado on February 18, 1985. This decisive moment lasted only long enough for a hasty tripod set-up and 5-second exposure, before the train moved forward. Pentax 6x7, 75mm lens and Tri-X film.


This photo was taken shortly after midnight on the morning of November 14, 1987 in the Burlington Northern yard in Sterling, Colorado for CTC Board magazine's "A Day in North America" feature, published in the February 1988 issue. I find the foreground engine reminding of a giant dinosaur looming out of the darkness to be very dramatic.


I originally envisioned a photo like this when hiking these tracks a year earlier and seeing the dramatic juxtaposition of the silhouetted tunnel portal framing the rock peak above the next tunnel, in the Denver & Rio Grande Western's "Tunnel District" (27 tunnels - originally 30 - in only 13 miles) west of Denver, Colorado. All I needed was a train and perfect timing to complete my photo, for if the shutter had opened half a second sooner or later, the locomotive would not have been silhouetted as nicely against the tunnel opening. A split second decisive moment!


A Burlington Northern train hustles through the little town of Hudson, northeast of Denver, Colorado. A 400mm tele along with late afternoon backlighting emphasizes the unevenness of the siding rails, and the mass and power of the fast approaching train.


A back-lit rear pusher resembles a pre-historic monster as it helps hustle a train eastbound on the "Doterso Cutoff" portion of the Union Pacific's "Moffat Line" in western Colorado. Nikon D200 DSLR and telephoto lens.


The exahusts from multiple locomotives up front, mid-train and rear working hard through the poorly ventilated Mullan Pass Tunnel on the Montana Rail Link in central Montana always created dramatic, decisive moments of the smoke storm pouring from the west portal even while the train was only part way through. Pity the poor helper crews! Pentax 6x7 and 200mm lens.


It has taken two long days of exhaustingly hard work by the crews of three Cumbres & Toltec Scenic locomotives and steam rotary plow to clear the line into Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado in May, 1993. Including the locomotives running out of water the previous evening just a half mile from the water plug at Cumbres, and the tired crews working well into the night filling the tenders first with shoveled snow, then with water through long hoses from a fire truck parked on the highway below the tracks. I was out in the early gray dawn of the 3rd day looking for a shot to best illustrate the train in the deep snow, but this lone figure going to check the fires in the locomotives and rotary was for me the decisive moment as it sums up all the fatigue, gloom, loneliness and cold of railroading in remote winter conditions.

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