By Jeff Mast
Posted February 17, 2012
For many of us, the inspiration for photography came from the simplest of means—seeing a picture of a train in a book or magazine. But who made the photograph that inspired you to pick up a camera and begin exploring railroads yourself? Did you stop to learn their identity? Do you remember? After my own 44 years of railroad photography, there have been many shutter clicks, miles traveled, memories, and most of all inspiration.
As a child I remember the sights and sounds of the last steam locomotives operating on my “home road,” the Grand Trunk Western. For years I kept a ruffled, tattered, and cherished copy of that March 1960 Detroit News Sunday special section covering the end of steam. I wanted to not only see steam once again, but also to see more pictures and find more inspiration. Years later, I received for a birthday present a really spectacular book showcasing the last of steam in expertly composed photographs. That book was Farewell to Steam and the photographer was David Plowden. As I studied the pictures and locations, Plowden’s work became an inspiration for how I wanted to pursue photography.
As the years went by—bringing more birthdays and more presents—I obtained many books with the work of storied photographers. Notable examples include Canadian Steam and The Mohawk that Refused to Abdicate, both written by then-Trains editor David P. Morgan and featuring the work of such talented photographers as Philip R. Hastings. And then there was Backwoods Railroads of the West by Richard Steinheimer, today viewed almost reverently by scores of railroad photographers as the motivation and inspiration behind countless personal photography quests—including many of my own.
Now fast forward to 2004, when, while packing to attend the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s annual conference in Lake Forest, Illinois, I stopped by the bookcase and grabbed that old copy of Farewell to Steam and a few other David Plowden books. Knowing that he would attend the conference, I was hoping to have him sign them. It turned out that quite a number of the other attendees also had the same idea.
That Saturday at the reception in the Glen Rowan House of Lake Forest College, Plowden met a rather large group, everyone waiting with books in hand. What happened then was truly special. The outpouring of interest in his work genuinely surprised this dignified man that I had admired for so long. Sitting at a huge round table for nearly two hours, he signed every last one of our books and took the time to talk one-on-one with each of us.
When my turn came, he opened Farewell to Steam, saw the $3.95 price written in pencil inside the front cover, and laughed. “You sure have a first edition here,” he remarked. What Plowden did that evening touched many of us, and I overheard several other attendees lamenting that they had not brought their own Plowden books and joined in the signing. For my part, I realized that the man himself was an even greater inspiration than is his wonderful photography.
That was the second year of the Center’s “Conversations about Photography” conference. Now approaching its tenth year, these kinds of unofficial, organic book signings and discussions have become hallmarks of the event. You can not only see remarkable photography, but also find out the hows and whys behind specific pictures, meet the people who created them, and find new inspiration through new and renewed friendships.
Now, even as I help to organize this year’s conference, I cherish those past conferences where I first connected faces with the names that I had so long associated with some of the finest photographs of the past. Despite being a public event, it seems still to be one of the hobby’s best kept secrets, where railroad photographers, book publishers, and magazine editors all regularly attend to meet and admire the work of some of the most respected photographers around.
If you want to find more inspiration in your own pursuit of railroad photography, I urge you to attend. This year’s Conversations will be held April 13-15 at Lake Forest College north of Chicago. Visit the Center’s website [railphoto-art.org/conference] for more details, including a full line-up of presenters, and to register.
I hope to see you there.