Jim Shaughnessy: still the master

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Jim Shaughnessy, in a recent portrait by Jeff Brouws.
Although I got to know him well only fairly recently, my admiration for master photographer Jim Shaughnessy goes back 52 years, to the very first issue of my very first subscription to Trains magazine.

That would be November 1965, the memorable 25th anniversary edition of the magazine, in which Editor David P. Morgan reviewed a quarter-century of railroading in a series of short essays, each accompanied by the work of some of the finest photographers of the era.

One picture in particular caught my eye: an arresting depiction of the essential elements of steel rail, flanged wheel, and automatic coupler, running across pages 32-33 above a pithy commentary Morgan headlined “The Enduring Values.” The photograph showed the end of a cut of boxcars, perfectly composed and shot from the top of the rail, a daring mash-up of geometry, machinery, and perspective.

Enduring values, indeed. They’ve been Jim Shaughnessy’s stock in trade for more than 70 years. Readers of both Classic Trains and Trains have been enjoying Jim’s work for decades, and since 2007 CT readers have been treated to a steady stream of some of Jim’s most interesting adventures in his series “The Shaughnessy Files.”

A new book, 'Jim Shaughnessy: Essential Witness,' presents more than 150 of his masterful photographs.
Thus it was a huge honor a couple of years ago to be asked to participate in a new book of Jim’s photography. The invitation came from Wendy Burton and Jeff Brouws, partners of mine on an earlier book, and also the producers of Jim’s first major photographic retrospective, The Call of Trains, published by W. W. Norton in 2008.

Now they were planning a new book. Such is Shaughnessy’s vast catalog that just one showcase wouldn’t do. This new one is called Jim Shaughnessy: Essential Witness, due in the fall from the London-based art publisher Thames & Hudson. My assignment was to write the introduction and captions, which turned into an intense several weeks of rewarding research. The bulk of the photographs have either never, or only rarely, been seen.

The best part of this job was the need — no, call it the privilege — to spend a weekend with Jim in his hometown of Troy, N.Y. I flew out to Troy nearly a year ago and we spent the better part of three days sightseeing around town, chatting on the deck behind his house, visiting a couple of his favorite restaurants (along with his charming and insightful wife, Carol), and, best of all, having several hours of interviews in his impressive railroad library. A library, by the way, which includes two of Jim’s own excellent books, The Rutland Road (Howell-North, 1964) and Delaware & Hudson (Howell-North, 1968), about two of his favorite railroads.

Jim is characteristically low-key about his photography, and in our interviews he was generous in crediting others as supportive influences, many of them friends. Important figures such as Phil Hastings, Parker Lamb, Dick Steinheimer, Lucius Beebe, and, of course, Morgan.

But Jim has always stood out in that crowd of photographers who blasted apart the Railroad Photo Edifice (a.k.a. the “wedge shot”) and threw the pieces out the window. Jim’s photography was by turn poetic, muscular, journalistic, vivid, often all at the same time. He was a master of composition who, along with his contemporaries, really changed people’s perceptions about how the railroad could be portrayed against the North American landscape.

In a classic Shaughnessy composition, a Canadian Pacific westbound freight headed by 4-6-2 No. 2203 fights the grade through Campbellville, Ontario, in 1958.
The photo here of doubleheaded Canadian Pacific steam at Campbellville, Ontario, is a good example. At first glance it’s just another action shot. But as you settle into the image, you notice the way Shaughnessy captures the train at the exact moment where it can be framed intelligently by what other photographers might have considered clutter: the eaves of the depot, the code lines and poles, the buildings across the tracks, even the car in the parking lot.

It’s also classic Shaughnessy in that it’s winter. Time and again, Jim braved the bitter snow and ice of New England and Canada to depict steam at its most spectacular.

Jim’s mastery didn’t stop with what he saw in the viewfinder. From more than 30 years of thumbing through black-and-white photographs in the Kalmbach library, I can tell you that Jim’s 8x10 prints almost jump into your hands. Even just a little corner of one of them will show the characteristically deep contrast and razor sharpness that inevitably leads to Shaughnessy’s trademark red italic rubber stamp on the back.

That’s why one of the highlights of my weekend with Jim was a quick peek at his darkroom in the basement. Not the one where he printed his greatest hits of the steam-to-diesel era — that was in Jim’s and Carol’s earlier home in Troy. This was his newest lab, still containing some of the same equipment he used decades earlier to commit B&O EM-1s, Central Vermont 4-8-2s, Delaware & Hudson PAs, and all those other iconic subjects to silver gelatin fiber-based paper.

Jim wouldn’t let me linger for very long — “I need to clean it up a little,” he said — but for me it was an honor to stand in that room.

My visit with Jim ended all too quickly. I thanked him and Carol for their hospitality, hustled back to Milwaukee, and over the course of the next few weeks finished my part of the project. Now, many months later, I’ve just seen the finished book, which, thanks to Thames & Hudson’s printing standards, looks gorgeous.

Even after writing 150 captions, each turn of the page seems like a revelation. Jim Shaughnessy’s photographs are so deep, so engrossing, that every encounter reveals something new. For me, that’s the mark of a true master.

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