Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kevin Scanlon

Noted railroad photographer Kevin Scanlon was featured in Great Railroad Photography 2010. He is the founder of The Photographers' Railroad Page.

Were you a photographer first, or a railfan first?

I was interested in both railroads and photography from an early age, both interests merged when I was in high school. I had joined the local model railroad club and some of the guys were active railfans. Viewing their photos and eventually accompanying them on some railfan trips fueled my teen enthusiasm to photograph everything about trains. This was in the early 1970s so there was a huge variety of subjects available. You couldn’t drive a couple of miles anywhere in the Pittsburgh area without crossing some tracks and they all saw traffic, even the most decrepit branchlines and industrial spurs.

Quinnimont Yard Shifter, Quinnimont, WV May 17, 1975

This photograph was taken during a trip made the weekend after graduating
from high school. A friend and I made a several-day run through West Virginia
with a couple of sleeping bags and a gas station roadmap. We shot the Western
Maryland in Elkins on Friday, former Virginian FM Trainmasters in Elmore on
Saturday morning and visited Quinnimont in the afternoon. Of all the photographs
I’ve taken, this one gets the most reaction from the non-railfan general public. It
seems to have something that draws people in, like the first line of a good story.

In those early days, did you approach taking pictures of trains from a more documentary approach or a more artistic approach? What were the influences affecting your railroad photography at the time?

When I first started photographing railroads, most of what I shot was mimicking what and how I had seen others photographing. I took a lot of photos of equipment because of the collector tendency: static portraits of locomotives, buildings and some freight cars. When I began to see some of what was being published in books and rail magazines, I was drawn to the more creative photography. Richard Steinheimer’s essays in TRAINS Magazine especially were very influential. California in Winter, Cajon Pass Revisited as well as Ted Benson’s remarkable work are what made me want to go out and try something different. I suppose that the strongest influences on my work were the choices that editor David P. Morgan made on what he put on and between the covers of TRAINS. Not only the photographers, but also the Bern Hill and Tom Fawell artwork.

At a local bookstore I picked up a copy of Michael Mathers’ Riding the Rails. It was enlightening. That book showed me that railroad photography didn’t need to be about the locomotives. It also made me realize the power of the black & white image. A few years later in photography school we had an assignment to choose a well known photographer and create a series of photographs emulating that photographer’s style. Most students chose mainstream fine art photographers and photojournalists like Bill Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans & Ansel Adams but I went with Michael Mathers. I felt a strong connection to his simple compositions, textured lighting and the rich tones of his prints.

My interests and influences during this time also steered the direction that my life took. Starting out in model railroading and working with all of the mechanical complexities and minute detail made me decide to pursue engineering in college. I applied for and was accepted at several universities, including the University of Colorado which I chose because if the proximity to those western railroads and mountains. As time went on and I became more obsessed with creative photography, I stopped the model trains and the engineering dreams and enrolled in photography school.

Don Conangelo, Scranton, Pa September 19, 2011

In recent years I haven’t been photographing trains or railroads nearly as much
as in the past. This portrait is from a current collaborative project with Kevin
Tomasic on the people of the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad in Scranton. Don
is the Chief Mechanical Officer and specializes in keeping his fleet of older Alco
locomotives performing. While Don was telling us about his work, he treated us
to an impromptu piano concert. The D-L in Scranton was a unique experience.
Where else in 2011 can you find a fleet of Alcos earning their keep in daily freight
service and find a railroad shop that includes an upright piano along with the

How far along in your transition from roster to more 'artistic' railroad photographs were you when you enrolled in photo school? How did photography school influence your railroad photographs?

I don’t know if I can be exact in answering that first question. I suppose this is the best way to put it: as I became more aware of different styles of photography, I experimented more. I found that I got much more personal satisfaction in finding different viewpoints and trying new techniques. Getting feedback from the other students and the teachers was a great tool. It’s invaluable to see your photography through someone else’s eyes.

How did your prior railroad photography influence the photos you took while in school? Where did you go to photo school?

Mostly the influence was in technique and viewpoint. I had to be broken of the Kodachrome mindset and I approached my subjects as a document. Not much soul showed in the non-rail photography in school because initially I didn’t have any passion for it like I did with the trains. Photographing people intimidated me, I wanted to stick with the machines.
I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and graduated in 1978.

Over the years I’ve been photographing the railroads it has been
apparent that the railroad environment is losing some of its unique details and
structures. This photo, taken in the pre-dawn light feature
some of that company individuality. The first one from Lewistown, PA includes a
Pennsylvania position light signal and a westbound freight on the approach.

Who were some of your favorite non-railroad photographers?

The great part of school was the exposure I got to a wide range of photographers. Some of the instructors were of an avant-garde style, some were mainstream commercial photographers, some were journalists and documentary photographers. I got a strong dose of the latter and gained an appreciation and love for the work of the FSA photographers including Walker Evans, the Group f64 photographers, W. Eugene Smith and Stephen Shore. The New Topographics movement was very hot at the time and although at first I didn’t quite get it, I came to understand what they were doing and loved it.

One photographer made a strong and immediate impact on me and how I approach photography, Robert Frank. When I first saw The Americans it shook everything I knew and believed about photography. Frank broke all of the rules I was being taught but created the most powerful book I’ve seen. He taught me how to see.

In 2006 I started working on a personal project to photograph in the hours
around sunrise, a time of day I didn’t have much experience with. The emerging
light and changing colors made it a lot of fun to experiment with. Part of my goal
was to use the sun itself as an element in the photographs and to use the urban
surroundings as graphic shapes in the compositions. These two photographs are
both from 2006 with slightly different light conditions and featuring trains on two
different railroads passing downtown Pittsburgh.

Did you show a lot of your railroad photos during critique? How were they received?

I would occasionally show photos with railroad subjects during critique. They were treated like any other subject. If the photo was good it went well. One of the reasons I studied photography was to expand my experience, so I tried to not fall back onto railroad subjects for school assignments.

When you were/are trackside with camera and considering a scene, how does your approach differ now from back in those pre- or early school days? On some subconscious level, is Robert Frank or Walker Evans whispering in your ear when you compose? Do you draw from those influences more, or from being weaned on the work of Stein and crew?

I think that as I’ve matured as a photographer I’ve finally figured out that I’m most successful when I shoot for myself rather than try to follow the accepted guidelines, especially with railroad photography. My choices of what to shoot are mostly unplanned. My compositions are instinctive. I don’t set up somewhere and wait for a train to come by anymore. I don’t try to take photographs that I hope others will think are good.

In any art form the creative person has every other piece of work they’ve seen rolling around somewhere inside their head. It’s inevitable that the ones you admire most have an influence in some way. How you interpret those influences and use them is what makes your own style. I suppose that the photographers I’ve admired most have each added small bits to make up my style of photography. Robert Frank’s influence was to shoot what interested me, not what would make a good picture. Walker Evans’ was a worship for composition. Ansel Adams showed me that shadows are just as interesting as highlights. Eugene Smith’s lesson was the power of the human image and the power of photographing in light you have no business photographing in. Richard Steinheimer was influential in how he included so much of the environment around the railroad and the interesting details. I don’t try to walk in their footsteps but I do try to gather a little of their mojo.

For many years my wife Dory and I would rent a cabin in West Virginia’s
Babcock State Park as a spring or autumn vacation. Until recently you were
able to drive along the right of way of the former Mann’s Creek Railway past
the cabins at Babcock all the way to Sewell in the New River Gorge. I became
fascinated with the CSX bridge over the New at Sewell and chipped away at
trying to photograph it over a period of twenty years. It was rarely photographed
because of its remoteness and seeming lack of an open viewpoint. The first
photograph was an early attempt from the rocky west bank of the river. At this
spot I was standing out in the water, my feet on two small rocks. I happened
to look down just as a baby rattlesnake swam upstream between my feet. I’ve
heard several local people say, “Yeah, Sewell is snaky.” I can confirm this after
several more encounters.
As I continued working Sewell over the years I decided that the east bank of the
river provided the best results for me. An interesting lighting feature happens
in October, late in the day. As the sun drops down and the gorge fades into
shadows a shaft of sunlight runs down the Coal Run hollow and hits the bridge
like a spotlight. The challenge of trying to capture this became an obsession. I
would only have the opportunity 2-3 days per year, the day would need to be
sunny and clear, the light I wanted would only last a couple of hours per day and
I’d have to be fortunate enough to have the CSX send one of their handful of
eastbounds across the bridge during the tiny window of opportunity.

So when you go out to watch trains, how do you approach taking pictures? Take what comes, or plan your travels around places to get interesting photos?

There is no single answer to that one. What usually happens is that I pick out an area that interests me then explore. Later I’ll look at the photos that I’ve taken and find better photos within those photos. I’m not someone who can visit somewhere and come away with great shots the first time. I have to look at what I shot and think about what worked and what I could have done better. Sometimes a different lens choice or cropping becomes evident after reviewing. Sometimes a different season or time of day would be better. If I find a location I really connect with I reshoot it many times, experimenting and refining each time.

There is a bridge photo in southern West Virginia that I’ve been working on for over 20 years. It’s one of those shots where the light is the way I want it only in certain times of the year and only for a couple of hours during the day. Add to that the variations in weather and being lucky enough for one of the infrequent trains to come by and you can see why it takes so long. That and the fact that I’m a slow learner when it comes to figuring out how to create a successful photo.

Do you set out with a plan to make "portfolio" pictures, or set out to watch trains, or a little of both? Would you hang out in a place that wasn't particularly inspiring to take pictures just to watch trains roll by?

Neither. I set out to see some new things and snap a few photos along the way. The photographs I’m most satisfied with are the ones I’ve “built” through seeing, learning and reshooting. But I don’t set out to make those photos. They happen when I stumble upon something that excites me, then the challenge becomes to find a way to capture in the camera what I see in my mind.

I don’t go out just to watch trains. I’m more interested in making a photograph that the trains happen to be in.

Are photographic missions always the same as railfanning missions?

At this point in my life I’m not doing much railfanning. My free time is very precious and when I’m out photographing I follow whatever I find interesting. As often as not I’m shooting non-railroad subjects.

What do you think of the state of modern railroad photography? Do you have any railroad photographers who's work you follow?

It’s hard for me to offer a valid opinion on the state of railroad photography today because I don’t spend a lot of time looking at it. But that won’t stop me from offering an invalid opinion. My interest is in seeing photography that surprises me, shows me something that I hadn’t seen before. It seems like we have been taking the same rail photographs for the past 70 years, only now we are taking them at night because we can. Or we are converting them to black and white because it looks different. But generally we are still photographing a locomotive-leading train portrait filling 30% of the frame.

There is some real creative work being done, most of it isn’t being printed in the mags because the subscribers “aren’t paying to see that crap!” With the economics of publishing there can’t be much tolerance for using valuable space for something too far out of the mainstream. The only exception I can think of is Joel Jensen’s work, which I absolutely love. The best exposure I get for what is going on in rail photography is the annual CRPA conference in Lake Forest, IL. I have seen some work I really like that I may not have otherwise seen and I’ve gained an appreciation for some photographers I hadn’t given much thought to previously. It’s always an energizing weekend.

I don’t often look at the most popular rail photo website unless someone points me to a specific photo. It reminds me of the bird feeder outside my window. I used to fill it with only sunflower seed until the price doubled. Lately I’ve been buying a seed mixture and I’m watching a cardinal stand up there and fling all of the less desirable millet seeds onto the ground to get to those rare but tasty sunflower seeds. I don’t have the time to wade through the millet photographs on the site to get to the occasional tasty photo.

I don’t want to sound like a photography snob. Everyone taking railroad pictures has their own goal and reason for doing it. It’s a hobby. For many railfans the ideal photograph is all about the subject and how well it is rendered. For me the subject is less interesting than the craft of the photograph, what the photographer put into it.

The Norfolk Southern’s Ohio Connecting Bridge crosses two channels of the
river and goes over Brunot’s Island in the middle. The island is owned by a utility
company and has a sizable power facility on it. There is no road connection; the
utility company uses a river ferry to move vehicles, workers sometimes use an
enclosed, gated walkway along one end of the railroad bridge. I happened to
be photographing at the end of the bridge one morning and caught this worker
coming off the island.

How often do you return to your favorite spots vs exploring new ones? Do you ever "finish" with a spot?

I often return to reshoot spots, but also enjoy the surprise and challenge of new locations. I can’t say I ever consider a spot dead but if I do get a satisfying photograph I don’t tend to return as often. My photography time is so limited that I try to spend it building instead of polishing.

What is the tiny train school and how did it evolve?

The “Tiny Train School” is a term that was applied to my photography by a wise-assed friend. He told me that he was looking at my photographs and thinking, “He stands too far from the tracks.” I guess it stems from a decision I made a while ago with my photography to place the railroad in context. As I’ve said before, many railroad photographers value the train subject over everything else. Take a look at any group of train photos on the web or in a magazine. Don’t look at the title or caption, just look at the photo and ask yourself what that photograph tells you. You may notice that in a great many photographs all you know is the name of the railroad that painted the locomotives and the fact that they are pulling a train. What I was trying to do was photograph a scene that the railroad was a part of rather than photographing a train that had some scenery behind it.
I guess the whole Tiny Train theme started when I began to philosophically and physically back away from the railroad in my photography. Some of what I had been shooting recently contained more of a suggestion of the railroad than anything else.

Steel mills began to attract my interest in the mid-‘00s because I could see

that the last of them were rapidly being shut down and torn down. Since the steel
industry was such a huge part of western Pennsylvania I needed to do some
photography with them. This photograph from September 11, 2006 includes
the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel South Works in Mingo Junction, OH and its still-
working #5 blast furnace. A worker is walking along the railroad high line along
the furnace just as the sun is rising.

Many of the other subjects on your website are offshoots of rail subjects- steel and coal especially. Did you begin shooting these subjects concurrently with railroad subjects, or did it evolve as your shooting evolved? Do you see yourself continuing with railroad photography, or spending more time with other subjects?

I started shooting other industries because of their relation to railroads. Coal and steel are naturals. Lately I’ve been spending almost all of my photography time with steel subjects for a couple of reasons. It is a new challenge and I feel that it’s very important to document what is left. The United States is moving rapidly to almost exclusively a service economy. I feel it is important to photograph some of what built the country, especially being a Pittsburgher. I neglected photographing the mills in their prime much to my regret. I don’t want to let what’s left slip by.
Railroads don’t hold the same fascination for me right now, but the fire will probably return someday.

Are you working on any specific projects? Any shows or books coming up?

I do have a gallery show I’m working toward but nothing is definite yet. A few of my photos have been and will be popping up in publication but I haven’t been actively trying to place anything. Right now I’m content to keep chipping away at the steel mill photography. I find that unlike the railroads, I started shooting steel from far away and now I’m getting in closer. From Tiny Trains to Big Blast Furnaces.

Kevin's work can be seen at the following websites;, his personal website, an earlier version of his site, hasn’t been updated in a while , In This Light, photography and literature blog

Monday, July 25, 2011

Coming Soon

The Smoking Wedge will be the home of insightful conversations with modern railroad photography's best practitioners, the antithesis of the smoking wedge, masters of the Stein School.

"The revolt against what he liked to term 'miserable wedges of smoke' was spearheaded by David P. Morgan, powerful and authoritative editor of Trains magazine, the devotional reading of True Believers everywhere, and at his editorial fiat head-end action suffered a decline..."

Lucius Beebe, as quoted in A Passion for Trains, W. W. Norton & Co, 2004