Wanted: full credit to photographers

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rear-end crewmen of Canadian National freight 710 peer into a blizzard at the first of a dozen westbound trains they will meet on their 113-mile run east out of Edmundston, N.B. Philip R. Hastings photo
Just after dawn on a brutal winter day in the waning days of steam on Canadian National, photographer Philip R. Hastings stepped back from the caboose of an eastbound freight at Green River, N.B., and fired off a shot as his host crew inspected the oncoming 4-6-2 of a westbound extra.

It’s a photo for the ages. Streaked with thick flying snow, highlighted by Phil’s fill-in flash, the image is dramatic evidence of the harsh realities of railroading in winter, from the near white-out conditions to the beckoning coal stove visible through the door of the van. David P. Morgan knew a winner when he saw one, and splashed the photograph over an entire spread in his landmark 1961 book Canadian Steam!

I knew Phil Hastings, and always found him to be a laid back, self-effacing sort, not given to boastfulness. An editor could not have found a more easygoing collaborator, especially one walking around with that kind of reputation. 

And yet it would be a mistake to conclude Phil didn’t have a healthy ego, or that he didn’t attach great importance to the one thing that accompanies nearly every black-and-white print or color slide he ever made: his signature “Philip R. Hastings,” stamped in elegant green script. Phil would have placed the highest possible value on that most precious claim an artist can make: his copyright.

So I was more than a little annoyed recently when I ran across this same photograph, displayed on a Facebook page aimed at railfans, figuratively tacked up in the public square without a trace of credit or attribution. A few people commented on the drama of the shot, but I didn’t see anyone ask about the photographer. 

A man and boy watch E7s bring Gulf, Mobile & Ohio's eastbound Abraham Lincoln into Joliet Union Station in 1951. Wallace W. Abbey photo
This happens with some regularity. Phil’s CN photo inspired me to go looking for more examples of uncredited imagery and I quickly found two more that got my attention. One was a fine Wallace W. Abbey shot of Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s Abraham Lincoln arriving at Joliet Union Station behind immaculate E7s in the early 1950s. Wally had few peers when it came to placing a train in its environment. 

Another one struck very close to home. Taken from an old highway viaduct in July 1946, it shows a New York Central Hudson bringing the crack eastbound Twilight Limited into my hometown of Niles, Mich., amid a cloud of brakeshoe smoke. Just below the viewer, another 4-6-4 is poised to leave town with a westbound train. I don’t know a thing about the photographer, Glenn S. Moe, other than he did excellent work in the Niles and South Bend area, known locally as “Michiana.” One thing I can assume is that he’d always want credit for his picture. So would Wally Abbey. 

I’m not calling out the places where I found these shots. I’m not out to embarrass or indict anyone. What they’re doing isn’t a federal crime. I’m sure in most cases people upload photos like these out of the sheer desire to share something beautiful, or to simply have fun. Venality isn’t part of the equation.

But it’s still a serious ethical lapse, one that should always be called out. 

Don’t just take my word for it. I decided to ask Scott Lothes, executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, for his take on the phenomenon.  

“While the closeness of the railroad photography community fosters friendly relationships and easy sharing of material and information, it has also led to a loose regard for intellectual property,” says Scott. “Trading or purchasing slides or prints normally doesn’t include permission to publish or otherwise share those photographs. Copyright typically still belongs to the photographers, and unless you get their permission, you could be breaking the law by posting their photographs to websites or social media channels.”

Hudsons meet in 1946: New York Central's eastbound Twilight Limited slows for its stop at Niles, Mich., as a train for Chicago begins to pull west. Glenn S. Moe photo
Scott adds: “While few railroad photographers are likely to take legal action, asking someone before sharing their work is a friendly gesture, and very much in the spirit of our community.”

I would take that a step further and say, “if you don’t know who took the photo, and you can’t reasonably or easily find out, then don’t post it.” 

This problem doesn’t appear to me to be an epidemic. The websites of the professional railroad publications go to great lengths to include proper credit: if anyone should know the value of intellectual property, it’s them. The same goes for all the reputable railroad historical society sites and Facebook pages I visited. To those groups, authorship seems paramount, thankfully.

But uncredited photographs still show up in all kinds of other places, which (sigh) is a fact of online life. We’re not powerless to do something about it. I’ve pledged to myself to call these out when I see them, to add the photographer’s name as a comment when I know it, or firmly ask the person posting it to do the same. 

It’s the least we can do for Phil Hastings and all other railroad photographers who drag themselves out into the elements — in Phil’s case into the fury of a New Brunswick blizzard — and merely expect a bit of credit for providing people with free entertainment.

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