My unsung heroes: Robert and Bruce Wheatley sign their books, Thirlmere, NSW Australia, 2012
Just like I did.
I'm sure it seemed like an idiotic pursuit to some at the time--even to those railroaders who let them into their world, who likely asked (as they asked me) "why are you off playing sports or chasing girls instead of photographing these goddamned dirty old locomotives?" Yes, indeed.
As teenagers, we probably didn't really realize that the scenes that seemed so contemporary would soon enough become history, and our photographs part of that historical record. Today, even the fact that we teenagers were able to roam pretty much at will in the railroad environment taking photographs seems entirely foreign to today's generation of young rail photographers. How were we able to get such photos? Didn't the railroaders mind? Didn't you get thrown out?
You'd be hard-pressed to walk into a railroad terminal today and just start clicking away without getting your ass thrown off of the property. That is, if you can find an employee on the property. Railroad employment isn't what it used to be. Clerks are gone, train order operators a thing of the past. Maintenance crews have been mechanized and pared down to a bare minimum. Those employees who do remain are especially wary of photographers on the property--it's part of the drill instilled constantly to railroaders in this Post-9/11 world. And if you're a railroader not scared shitless about a terrorist blowing you up, you're probably concerned the guy with the pot belly and camera is there to spy on you and give the evidence to a company officer, who will probably find SOMETHING you're doing wrong and find a way to get rid of you.
So, there's that paranoia. And more paranoia.
I was lucky, for a couple of reasons, to pick up a camera in 1974 for the first time and not in 2004. Back then, railroaders generally didn't give a shit if you made everything short of a nuisance of yourself. As long as you didn't get hurt, and made yourself scarce when the officials stopped by (and sometimes, even they were okay with it), everything was kosher. But beyond that, certainly my youth figured into no one paying the kid with a camera much mind. I clearly wasn't old enough to be a company spy, and many of the railroaders had kid brothers or sons my age, so I didn't present a threat.
I don't think my experiences growing up and photographing railroads were that much different than my contemporaries or predecessors. I was caught between a black and white and color era, however, so it wasn't until I was financially able to shoot lots of Kodachrome after getting that first job out of college that my work started to transition away from black and white and into color. And when you're paying $15 (in 1980 currency) for 36 exposures of Kodachrome vs. pennies for the same roll of Tri-X, you tended to reach for the Tri-X for anything that seemed experimental or risky. Which, to me, was most of the human interest photography.
Kodachrome was expensive, so you didn't squander it on low margin people photographs. Then, not long after the turn of the century, cheap digital SLR's became available, and cost was no longer a factor. But by then, of course, there weren't many people to photography anymore on the railroad. Ironically, freedom to squander exposures at will returned just when railroads became considerably less photographic. I only wish today's young, creative rail photographers had the wonderful railroad infrastructure--roundhouse and depots and especially the human infrastructure--to photograph.
Hopefully, our creative influences will be their influences as well. And judging from the quality of work exhibited on line from around the world, there's no shortage of talent picking up the torch. And I've found that I'm still inspired and influenced and finding new heroes.
Meet Robert and Bruce Wheatley. On my last trip to Australia in 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting my newest heroes of documentary rail photography at the Thirlmere Steam Festival in New South Wales, signing copies of their two books, Railway Portraits Vols. I & II. We shared experiences photographing trains as teenagers, and like me, Robert and Bruce had remarkably tolerant parents who didn't forbid their sons from hanging out on the railroad making photographs. They started a decade before I did, when steam was still firmly in command of the rail lines radiating out of Sydney. And just as I'd experienced in the states, railroaders in their homeland were just as welcoming and understanding to their pursuits as the guys in Wishram, Tacoma, and Auburn, Washington were to mine.
It's a shame the Wheatley's aren't better known outside of Australia, but in my own small way, I like to try to spread the word about their work. It's intimate and documentary, graphic as well as scenic. And all in beautiful black and white. And if you can set aside your reluctance to embrace locomotives with round cab windows and buffer plates, I think their work will certainly grow on you.
You can order their books--there's now a THIRD volume--at http://www.railwaybookshop.com.au//
and search using the word "Wheatley."
Here's a small sampling of their work, too: of course, the Wheatley brothers own the copyright, so we're reproducing a few here under the guise of a review. Enjoy!
Volumes I & II, Railway Portraits
Fettlers, Muswellbrook, 1969
Staff exchange, Tumulla, 1966
Fuel man, Vic Rivett, Tarana, 1965
Cycling to work, Industrial Drive, Port Waratah, 1972