Of Donald Furler, Linn Westcott, and A.C.K.

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, August 27, 2020

The cover of the Center's new book on Donald Furler's pioneering railroad photography
This has been a pretty good year for railroad books, and none has excited me quite as much as the next one coming from the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (CRPA). 

It’s called The Railroad Photography of Donald W. Furler, and it’s a revelation, at least for me. Furler was one of those trailblazing shooters of the 1940s and early ’50’s who put railroad photography on the map and, not incidentally, helped a little magazine out of Milwaukee get off the ground. More on that shortly.

(You can find out more about the book here (http://www.railphoto-art.org/furler-book/). Full disclosure, I’m a member of the CRPA’s board of directors, although I had no direct involvement in this latest project. The book is the result of the 2017 donation of the Furler archives by the photographer’s son, Alan Furler.)

Donald Furler’s specialty was what he called the “action photo.” But don’t be fooled into thinking he was just another practitioner of that era’s omnipresent three-quarter shot. He did indeed traffic in “wedgies,” but to call him simply a wedge photographer would be to call Yousuf Karsh just a people photographer.

The first section of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus Train heads east over the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad behind 4-8-2 locomotive 10 on a damp June 13, 1948, near Burnside, New York. Photograph by Donald W. Furler, collection of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, Furler-16-016-01
Obsessive about sharpness and depth of focus, Furler’s images are wondrous glimpses of the entirety of the railroad landscape as expressed across the breadth of his beloved Northeast. Furler’s pictures of the Erie, Reading, B&O, O&W, Lehigh & New England, and several other railroads transcend location. They say something about the railroad’s relationship with the land, but they also illuminate details of locomotive design, operating practice, track standards, even signal technology. He worked, so to speak, on a huge canvas.

I got excited about this book for another reason: Donald Furler was meticulous about saving his correspondence with Trains magazine, the prime venue for him and so many other photographers of the 1940s. The editor of the book, CRPA Executive Director Scott Lothes, allowed me to sift through a number of these letters, many of which he quoted in his first-rate Foreword; they provide an interesting glimpse into a highly productive relationship.

The tone of the correspondence, the use of language, the occasional references to what was going on in the world (mainly World War II), are of another time. It predates Jim Shaughnessy, Phil Hastings, and the other revolutionaries waiting just over the next hill. It predates David P. Morgan and 1027 N. Seventh Street.

Furler got right to point in his introductory letter of January 21, 1941, sent to publisher Al Kalmbach. “While I am not one of the ‘old guard,’ neither am I a recent comer to this hobby, having been photographing locomotives and trains for the past eleven or so years,” wrote Furler, who referenced the wartime risk of being seen around engine terminals. “A growing preference for good action views has been rather climaxed by the current popular fifth column suspicion, so now I am mainly taking action views.” 

The Jan. 28, 1941, letter from A.C. Kalmbach in response to a letter received from Donald Furler.
That letter launched a stream of back-and-forth exchanges between Furler, Kalmbach, and the publisher’s chief lieutenant, Linn Westcott, the future legendary editor of Model Railroader. Kalmbach’s earliest reply to Furler made it clear he wanted honest feedback. “We appreciate your comments on the April issue of Trains. Any suggestions or constructive criticisms are always especially welcome. Tear it apart if you want to. We can take it.”

As often happens in editor-contributor relationships, Furler and Kalmbach became friends. Early on, Furler had taken to addressing Kalmbach as simply “Dear Al.” Their mutual appreciation was apparent in an exchange sparked by a shot of L&NE Camelback 2-8-0 No. 29: “It is one of my hastiest, least planned shots,” wrote Furler, “but it was one of those when you know the minute you snap it that you got something extraordinary … and begin to worry immediately about what will go wrong when you develop the film.”

Kalmbach responded: “You have every right to be proud of it whether you just happened to stumble upon it or not.” The publisher continued: “Gee, today is one of those marvelous days that makes me want to itch to get out and along the tracks somewhere. It is the kind of day I’d like to be in New Jersey and be able to take up your invitation to visit you and go off on a tour of some of the local high spots.”

Erie Railroad 4-6-2 steam locomotive no. 2750 leading an eastbound passenger train through Passaic Junction in Elmwood Park, (formerly known as East Paterson), New Jersey in 1940. The photographer’s shadow appears at lower left. Photograph by Donald W. Furler, collection of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, Furler-03-034-02
Furler’s honesty was a hallmark of the relationship with Trains. It was Westcott who asked Furler the magic question: what equipment do you use? An engineer by profession, Furler was only too happy to answer — in more ways than Westcott probably expected.

Furler’s reply of October 30, 1941, was a six-page response, tracing the photographer’s evolution in the smallest of details, from his 8 x 10 City View camera used for roster photography to a 5 x 7 Speed Graphic, from Eastman Commercial Film to Agfa Superpan Press Film. Firm in his convictions, Furler couldn’t help but comment on a recent Trains feature he didn’t like: “And above all, no paintings please. That idea of presenting a set of cuts of paintings was alright as an experiment, but I’m afraid a good many of my healthy rail-fan friends will suffer apoplexy if they find another set of paintings adorning the pages of their favorite magazine.”

I got a kick out of Furler’s frequent use of the word “cut” to describe a press-ready image, a prehistoric term of printing technology. As for his opinion on paintings, the Trains staff didn’t take that recommendation fully to heart — fortunately for Howard Fogg, Gil Reid, and many artists to come.

The February 1943 'Trains' cover shows Lehigh & New England 2-8-0 304 charging upgrade near Branchville, New Jersey, on April 12, 1941. The negative number Furler-02-044-01 in the Center's collection.
Neither was Furler overly awed by the icons of the day, especially if it related to his pet priority of depth of field, or the lack of it in a certain photographer’s work. “The latter is termed among my railfan acquaintances as a ‘Luscious’ effect — with due apology to Mr. Beebe — because his photos are consistently lacking in depth of focus. I gave Beebe credit, but I also agree with all the railfans . . . that is work is highly overrated.”

Almost as interesting as Furler’s messages to Kalmbach or Westcott were the details in his caption sheets. As someone who’s had to track down elusive details for thousands of captions, I would have appreciated Furler’s voluminous notes. Some are even fun to read, such as this one about chasing a B&O 2-10-2 into the yard at Hagerstown, Md.: 

“Note smoke in distance of WM #923 and #933 pushers. This train was going slower than any train I’ve ever seen climbing a grade. Although barely moving, she did not stall, and actually if I had felt ambitious, I could have obtained several views of the train by merely sprinting along with it, believe it or not.”

There were other little extraneous details that caught my eye in these letters. One was the ornate Trains letterhead of the day, carrying various early and somewhat creaky slogans, such as “A well illustrated magazine about railroads and travel.” Or this politically incorrect one: “The monthly railroad magazine for men who like trains, tracks, and travel.”

Then there was the company’s early wartime address, 1568 W. Pierce Street, a semi-industrial building located on the edge of the Menomonee Valley just southwest of downtown Milwaukee, probably a mile from Kalmbach’s better-known home on Seventh Street. The Pierce Street building still stands. 

I also loved the fact that, along with the latest batch of prints to Westcott, Furler on January 27, 1944, included a money order for another year’s subscription: a whopping $2.50.

Furler didn’t always have to pay. In a March 1941 letter, Westcott extended Furler’s subscription by another year — just because. Linn added, “I only wish that all our contributors sent in as nice pictures as you do.” An extreme understatement, perhaps, but it speaks to the impact of Donald Furler’s masterful photography, now earning a well-deserved reappraisal in the Center’s book.  

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