Friday, February 14, 2014

Opening the Black & White Vaults. . .

 Grabbing orders, Milwaukee Road train #202, Kent, Washington. April 15, 1979

I've been asked to give a presentation about my now 40-years of railroad photography (that's a staggering amount of time when you apply it to someone else, and downright frightening when you're speaking about yourself!) to the annual "Conversations about Photography" conference by Center for Railroad Photography and Art director Scott Lothes.

You can read about the festivities here.

The May 16-18 conference at Lake Forest College on Chicago's north side will be the 11th such presentation, and I'm flattered (if a bit nervous) about the opportunity to talk about my work to the assembled artists, historians and others with an interest in the intersection of railroading and photography. The list of those who have presented in the past is quite impressive; I've always felt modestly about my work (though some of my acquaintance may not agree with that statement), and it is humbling to be lumped in with the likes of David Plowden, Dick Steinheimer, Don Sims, Ted Benson, John Gruber, Stan Kistler, Jeff Brouws--too many to list here, but suffice it to say that many, many among these have been my heroes and influences.

But the opportunity to present is a bit daunting, as this isn't the usual Winterail-type multi-media slide presentation of pretty photos set to music. What would I talk about? Can I tame my fear of public speaking? And how do I sift through 20,000 slides and 600+ rolls of black and white film to develop an overriding theme to the presentation. Scott figures I'd have time to present 50 or so photographs--my choosing--in a Q&A/discussion format with my photography friend and CRPA board member Mike Valentine. Thankfully, a lengthy interview and very nice article about my work by Scott for an upcoming issue of the CRPA's "Railroad Heritage" magazine has pointed me in the right direction.

So here's where the real work has started: weeding out the best of my black and white images to compliment my color work. I'm far more familiar with my color work, honestly, as it's been the focus of my on-going efforts to scan and catalog my work. The black and white negatives, though, are largely a mystery to me.

Since losing access to a wet darkroom when I left the photojournalism profession in 1994, the negs have largely sat in plastic totes, moved from location to location. Finally, I've gotten around to organizing them and beginning to reacquaint myself with what I'd shot.

And, to be honest, there's some pretty cool stuff in there--photos I'd either forgotten about or had passed over when I'd originally edited them in favor of images that I may have liked better back then. Some didn't initially make the cut because my criteria for what makes a "great" photo was different in 1981 than it is today. And some I didn't bother printing because at times my darkroom skills in processing film was a bit, um, lazy. And that resulted in some rolls that were either over or under developed. The earliest years of the work is especially fun, as a I shot a LOT of film and wasn't afraid to fail at trying something new; 1978 was an especially prolific year.

I was good at wet darkroom printing, but I hated it--the tedious hours, the smell of Kodak Rapid Fix that attached itself to everything. But I do love the digital darkroom, and aside from lack of smelly chemicals, one of the best things about it is that many of those thin, under-developed negatives that no way could I get a good print from are now magically transformed by Minolta Scanner, Vue Scan software, and Lightoom/Photoshop editing programs into some really nice images.

I'll be sharing some of these heretofore forgotten frames in the upcoming months. They've brought back lots of great memories, and really knocked me over the head once again with how much railroading has changed.

I hope you enjoy them!

Photo above: It's Easter Sunday, April 15, 1979, and Milwaukee Road train #202 has finished setting out a GP9 for service on the "Valley Owl" local at Kent, Washington. On the move eastbound, conductor Swanie Goulbic leans out from the caboose to snag a set of train orders strung up in the stand outside the depot. This railroader is obviously a veteran, and has learned his lesson in the past that it's better to grab the orders using a rolled up flag and wooden dowel, rather than take a chance smashing his hand on the wooden train order fork.


Martin Burwash said...

Very cool pic and story. Would love to see your presentation. Judging by your body of work that I have seen, it will be awesome.

Nick Fotis said...

Personally, I appreciate highly your color slides (heck, I even pay gladly for these! :-) )

Your black&white imagery is practically unknown to me, but judging from this sample, the presentation promises to be extremely interesting.

The hardest part is to make a selection for presentation. I feel that reducing to less than 50 photos (ideally about 40) should give you enough room for adding history.

And I agree, scanners and computers have transformed b&w imaging - no need to spend time trying to print negatives.

Often I am thinking about trying my hand on b&w negatives and film development, but I just cannot think in black and white (I was a color slide shooter in my film days).

PS. Which scanner do you use? Are you scanning only 35mm film?

B. Kooistra said...

Hi Nick, I've settled on Minolta (Konica) scanners, and I've had both the Dimage Scan Elite 5400 and the Dimage Scan Elite 5400 II versions. Both are equal to the Nikon 35mm scanners for a fraction of the price--when you can get them. I believe they stopped producing these in 2006, but you can find them on eBay, sometimes NIB. These use only 35mm film. The scan times (from preview to final scan) for the Scan Elite on a 35mm Kodachrome at 5400dpi creating a 110MB TIFF file was approximately 13 minutes; the Elite II was 6 minutes, but a very slightly less sharp corner to corner. But, considering I've got 20,000 slide to scan, this could save 2 years of my life, so I'm willing to sacrifice the small drop in quality. But, you'd never tell the difference either in print at 300dpi or on line.

Ron Flanary said...

Blair, this is just fantastic stuff. As you know, Mike Danneman and I are going through the same ordeal--trying to come up with our "best" for a presentation. We're also showing some art work, so that cuts the photographic images down to about 30 each. If you've been an active photographer as long as you, me or Mike---that's a tough, tough thing to do. I've made my "final" list of scans about twenty times so far...and I'm still changing my mind. I know you'll do a killer job...and I'm so flattered to be on the program with you guys.

Nick Fotis said...

Ah, my first foray into film scanning was with a Polaroid Sprintscan 4000. Nice scanner, but rather slow. And these old scanners needed SCSI and similar unusual connections.

Today, USB is the rule on film scanners. I use an Epson V500 for my film scanning needs, and it is adequate (not great) on 35mm film (around 2400DPI is its practical resolution - the V700 can get 3200 DPI or so). On medium format, these flatbed scanners have no practical competition.

I wish you the best luck and patience with scanning all this amount of film.