Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Slipping off the Learning Curve: on becoming a teenage railfan.

Photographers often hear the phrase: "You're only as good as your last picture." Well, this post isn't about my last picture. It's about my first. Maybe not THEE first (I believe those were done on a hand-me down Kodak 126 roll camera, and who knows where those are), but at least the first efforts I made in putting railroads to film.

So, maybe the appropriate phase here is: "Show me the shittiest photographs you can imagine of trains."  And I can probably meet that expectation and raise the bar a few notches.

Another phrase here comes to mind, that of the big room filled with a million monkeys banging away on typewriters: eventually, the saying goes, one of them will just happen to produce a best-selling novel.

No monkeys here. No novel. No typewriter. But maybe a million photos down the road, I've ended up with a few pretty good ones. And this here is where it all started.

Now, excuse the self-indulgence, because this posting is entirely self-indulgent. If you've come for great photographs, you won't see them in this posting. But maybe, if you're a photographer yourself, you can relate to how I got into this hobby, and you too will remember the months and years of struggle to get up that steep learning curve and begin to make some photographs that don't end up getting filed in the cabinet for forty years.

The First Roll
 So, here I am in my way-cool imitation leather jacket, striking a pose for my dad in front of Union Pacific 4-8-4 833, which was retired to Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City. I am 13 years of age, and have yet to get braces. And thank God I did. I'd just gotten a Mamiya/Sekor 500TL 35mm SLR camera with 50mm lens for Christmas 1973, and my father has driven me from our east bench suburb to gritty downtown SLC--vagrants! Pan handlers! And as I was later to learn, gay sex in the bathrooms. I saw none of it.  I just wanted to try out this new camera.

Most of the shots on that first roll of film filed in the "railroad" collection are abysmal. This one actually turned out okay: GP20 493 and a couple of switch engines at UP's North Yard engine facility. Whenever dad had an errand downtown, I'd come along, and we'd drive by the shops and see what was around. There was a fascinating variety on the UP back in those days. And only occasionally we'd get tossed off the property. We didn't have a problem with that this day.

My Sister, the Taxi Service 
Without a driver's license, I really had no way to scratch that itch to make train photos, being as I lived probably 10 miles from the closest railroad tracks. So, along with trips downtown with dad, or family vacations boating (with any luck, there'd be some train tracks nearby), I occasionally begged my older sister Ronnie to take me out. Since she was five years older than me and toting around her kid brother was definately NOT cool, it didn't happen too often. But somehow, she ended up being my chauffer on a February afternoon in 1976. I'd heard on KSL radio that a Union Pacific ore train had scattered all over the ground around 20 miles north of Salt Lake City, near Kaysville. Amazingly, she drove me up there, and not too long after arriving and surveying the wreckage of the ACUW ore train, along came a southbound led by DDA40X 6905. Welllll, farrrr out!, as the catch phrase by singer John Denver so popular about that time went. I think this was probably the first action photograph I made that was reasonable sharp. I might mention that at that time, I had the local drugstore process my film. It wasn't spectacular, but it was consistent.

Travels With Stan

Not too long after this, I started to attend the monthly meetings of the Promontory Chapter, National Railroad Historical Society. Then, as now, it was largely populated by elderly men who bemoaned the end of the steam era. But where else would you find a concentration of other people in Salt Lake City who loved trains? I discovered one of my high school classmates was an attendee with his father; we kept our railroad interest secret at Skyline High School, for being "outed" as a train buff surely would be as traumatic as being accused of being a high school smoker. Hey, it was Utah. One of the few younger guys in the group was Stan Jennings, probably early 30s. He liked going out and photographing trains, too, and was tolerant of having me along, so with Stan I made quite a few trips into the hinterlands. 
 One good thing about the NRHS, apart from the monthly slide shows, were the contact made and information gleaned from others. We learned of a Union Pacific officers special coming back from Los Angeles, and Stan and I spent the day waiting for it west of Salt Lake City, chasing it back to town and photographing the two E9A's leading the train off the Provo subdivision/"Passenger Line" on 300 West Street.  

Stan and I also photographed Union Pacific's Park City branch, and the local that operated it behind sets of GP7's and GP9s. The crew was friendly, and part of the day was spent riding the train while it switched the phosphate load-out facility at Phoston. It was right about this time that I graduated to processing my own film in the downstairs bathroom--talk about trial and error! When the results were good, they were far better than the drugstore film developing, but once more I bumped up against that learning curve and more often than not, I'd either under developed, over developed, or somehow damaged the film while processing. This didn't help matters, as my exposures were all over the place, which I can now attribute to following the built-in light meter. I'd follow it, as photographer friend Mark Hemphill would so aptly put it years later, "right into the ground!" Indeed. I'm amazed I was able to salvage and of the images from some of these trips

 Thanks to Stan, I was able to make my first trips to Soldier Summit, though, once again, my inexperience with exposure, holding the camera steady, and composition made the results quite disappointing. I did manage one or two frames where the Rio Grande Zephyr remained reasonably sharp; let's not mention my experiences on a beautiful afternoon following the westbound Utah Railway coal loads right into the sunlight down Soldier Summit in July 1976--blurry, out of focus, and over-exposed by several stops. 

The Sandy Local

The nearest tracks to my house were Union Pacific's Provo subdivision, which paralleled but were just a couple blocks east of the much-busier Rio Grande mainline between Salt Lake City and Provo. This was about 10 miles due west of our home in Holliday, an hour by Schwinn Sting-Ray down 4500 South Street. I made the trip a few times, usually stopping by Art Chase's home on the way. I met Art, who was my age, through the Golden Spike Model Railroad Club, and if we didn't spend the afternoon running his brass model of UP 8444 around his 22" radius curve on the layout wedged into his tiny bedroom, we'd head over to the tracks and see if we could find the the only train to operate on this line with any regularity, the Sandy Local. Art knew the crew, and we often ended up riding around for awhile on the EMD switch engine. I have no idea, in retrospect, why we didn't walk over to the Rio Grande to see more trains. Today, this UP line has been rebuilt by Utah Transit Authority and is used for a light-rail route to Draper.

Travels With Dad
 It was my father who really nurtured the railfan/photographer in me. He encouraged me accidentally by leaving issues of TRAINS magazine around when I was barely reading age, and when the model railroad bug hit about the same time the photography bug did, he spent many hours painstakingly building a 4 X 8' model railroad for me. Those trips downtown usually included a stop into Keith's Hobby House to check out the amazing basement model railroad department, and then there were the boating trips to Bear Lake in Idaho, where one night on our week-long vacation we'd drive into Montpeiler for a steak dinner, stopping by the Union Pacific there to look around. My dad was a regional sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, and his territory included southwestern Colorado--including Durango. So in the late summer of 1976, he took me along on a sales trip, highlights of which were putting me on the Rio Grande narrow gauge train for the day between Durango and Silverton--still operated by Rio Grande at this date!--and picking me up in the afternoon. It was a great week, seeing my dad at work and meeting his coworkers, seeing him in HIS environment. And it wrapped up with me riding the Rio Grande Zephyr home to Salt Lake City from Grand Junction. The Silverton Train, though--back in 1978, still operated by K28 Mikado's with fake diamond stacks and the two trains a day pulled right up into town while passengers shopped and ate lunch. Quite a change from the operation today!

Travels With Mom

My mother was amazingly tolerant of her son's railroad photography. She shared her laundry room, afterall, with my Durst F30 enlarger and stinky, messy chemicals. And more than once she took me out of school for the day to take me to various "must see" railroad events such as the Freedom Train and several iterations of Union Pacific Passenger specials. With her, I rode family day trains behind NW2's and GP30s--such as this push-pull set in 1976 north of Salt Lake City preparing to head back to the downtown depot. And with learner's permit in hand, she suffered through my driving her bright red Mustang convertible down Weber Canyon at 90 miles an hour to get back ahead of a UP Old Timer's special behind A-B-B-A E-units. THAT was a battle of wills--hers vs. mine! She finally dumped me off with Steve Sequine and Jim Belmont to chase it the rest of the way to Salt Lake City, though Steve's Camaro was quite a bit faster than mom's Pony.

Travels on My Own
 By the late summer of 1976, I'd finally gotten my driver's license. Not too long after that, my folks left for a long weekend "business convention" trip to the Bahamas or Hawaii or Disneyland, leaving me and my little sister under the iron thumb of an old woman we called "Mrs. Yaztee" for her love of the dice game. I was allowed to drive mom's mustang to work, but it wasn't long until I snuck out of the house before sunrise several days in a row to go exploring. The open road was finally mine, and I made the most of it, exploring the Salt Lake Valley: the Rio Grande Zephyr, the Midvale Tramp and its SD9's, and the curiosity of Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine operation and "low line" heavy-haul electric railroad. My camera technique was still not up to my ambitions, but I saw a lot of operations I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Was it worth it, the punishment for taking the car and putting a few hundred unauthorized miles on the odometer? Hell yeah. Absolutely.

On Meeting Mr. Schmid
Looking back nearly 40 years, I now see September 9, 1976 as being an important day in my development as a photographer. It was a chance meeting with a young photographer from California that made me realize that rail photography didn't have to be only a hobby, but rather it could be a lifestyle, a zen-like pursuit to make the best photograph you could using all the resources and tools available to you. From that day forward, I don't think I approached rail photography the same way again.  

I'd just found out we'd be moving to Seattle the following month, my father taking a promotion in the company to Regional Sales Director. I'd spent the day making one of my last trips to photograph trains downtown, and by accident had happened across the long-haired Californian in a VW Baja Bug taking in the action near Grant Tower, Salt Lake City's primary rail junction. At an inopportune time, a UP transfer drag from Roper Yard had stalled strung out through the bottleneck of Salt Lake rail operations, its single EMD switcher unable to keep its heavy train moving through the tight S-curve in the interlocking. UP's yardmaster sent a second switcher, and when this failed, sent a third. Three tries, and finally the ponderous drag was moving, three locomotives, three crews, and an interlocking once more fluid.  The photographer and I got to talking, and I learned this Berkeley postal carrier, Jamie Schmid, was deep into his yearly month-long trip throughout the west. A whole month? Photographing trains? I was dumbfounded. He slept on the ground next to the track. He used a slew of Nikon F-series cameras and lenses. He had a scanner. And he carried a notebook of hand-drawn topo maps. Clearly, this guy was dedicated.  I had to learn more. Without approval from the higher ups, I invited him to stay at our house, and he took me up on the offer, a bit worried, though, that perhaps I should check with my parents. It'd be okay, I assured him, and breathed a big sigh of relief when my mom said it'd be okay. I had the coolest parents, and Jamie agreed. 

We stayed up late that night discussing railroads, photography, the hobby, and a lightbulb went off above my head. This is what I need to be doing, I told myself. I traveled with Jamie the next couple of days, up to Ogden and out onto the Great Salt Lake causeway, then down to Soldier Summit where we did an after-dark chase--no photos, just diggin' the experience--of a heavy Utah Railway coal train down the mountain. The dynamic brakes on the RSD15's up front glowed orange in the night. It was spell-binding.

As one period of my life was ending, another was beginning. It was this encounter that set me straight on the opportunities for exploration in my new home in the Pacific Northwest. And I remember it like it was yesterday. Jamie's work has been an inspiration to me ever since. And I'm fortunate to count his as one of my longest-lasting friendships.


Andrew Hamblyn said...

A fantastic insight into your foundation years as a railroad photographer Blair, well done.
As an outsider looking in, its very apparent that you had a keen eye for perspective and composition right from the start - traits which are readily identifiable in all your published works - and are ultimately provide the inspiration and drive for me to improve my own work.
Thanks for sharing.

George Hamlin said...

Fascinating insight about the making of a photographer...and a dispatcher.

George Hamlin said...

Fascinating insight about the making of a photographer...and a dispatcher.

Mike Nichols said...

Interesting story telling. It's great to hear how you moved from the kid with the Kodak Instamatic to the next level. I cannot wait to read more. Thanks for sharing this!

Jim Belmont said...

Hey Blair, a wonderful look at your formative years, not unlike my own. It's reassuring to know your old black & white negatives are as just as scratched as my own. Thanks for sharing your story.

Jim Belmont

Nick Fotis said...

Excellent story, I followed a very different path myself (directly to color slide film after some months of inadequate print films).

And I was shooting photography before taking train photography, so I had fewer technical problems (and the light-meter of my Canons was pretty dependable, but often I preferred center-weighted - slide film is less forgivable than negative film).


Michael Sawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Sawyer said...

I remember meeting Jamie at our first winterail together. I said it then, I'll say it again now, Jamie had the most stunning Color slides I'd ever seen. I couldn't tell you what they were other than the photo of the cool flat car load with attendent.
Our chance meeting in 1978 at UP Jct., then "D" Street was the start of a long friendship. Your photography was and still is a inspiration to me. Even with the miles we live apart, I've always considered you the best of my best friends. You were a great teacher to me, Thanks.......