A conversation with a master of rail photography

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Tower operator Paul Swain is seen at West Cumbo tower near Martinsburg, West Virginia in 2000. Photo by George Hiotis
I was an impressionable teenager when I saw a slideshow that would forever change how I thought about railroad photography. My Dad and I were visiting my grandparents in New Jersey in the early 2000s the same week as EastRAIL, an annual multimedia slideshow (much like the famous Winterail) that was held throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and we decided to take in that year’s show.

Like its west coast counterpart, the shows at EastRAIL were always top notch, but all these years later one presentation stands out from all the rest: George Hiotis’ “Suburban Symphony.” Focusing on the commuter railroads of his native New Jersey, Hiotis disregarded all the rules of “traditional” railfan photography. This wasn’t a marathon of three-quarter wedge shots taken with the sun behind the photographer’s back, but rather a gallery of images taken at all hours of the day and in all conditions. The commuter trains were not the star of Hiotis’ show, but rather the people that rode them; the trains were merely a stage for this portrait of life in suburban America.

When the show was over, I knew that the type of images Hiotis took were the type of images I wanted to strive for in my own photography.

When I heard that Hiotis would be one of the featured presenters at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s Conversations 2018 from April 13 to 15 in Lake Forest, Illinois, I knew I had to go. Hiotis will be presenting a program called “The Last Outposts” about his effort to photograph interlocking towers on the former Baltimore & Ohio in West Virginia. I recently talked with Hiotis about his upcoming show, his technique and his advice for young photographers.

Tell me a little about how you first got interested in railroads and your career as a professional photographer?

I received my first Lionel train set when I was 4 years old in 1948 and my interest in railroads grew through the 1950s. In 1955, a like-minded friend and I would ride our bikes about 3 miles to the Jersey Central’s Westfield station to photograph trains with my father’s folding Kodak camera. By 1957, I had my own camera and we were venturing ever further to places like the Pennsy main line in Rahway. When we finally got our drivers licenses, we began to shoot steam specials and even took road trips to the legendary Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.

My career as a professional photographer was a continuation of my love of railroad photography. I got my first break as a photo assistant for Life Magazine, where I had the invaluable opportunity to work with its photographers. Later on, I worked as an assistant for all the Time-Life magazines and then branched out to other publications, gaining more knowledge of technique and lighting. This experience in photojournalism has served me well in my pursuit of railroads.

When did you first discover the towers along the former B&O and what inspired you to turn it into a long-term photo project?

I became interested in towers long before starting the B&O project and I photographed my first one back in 1969. I was fascinated by the ritual of tower operators handing off paper orders to moving trains. The former B&O towers were brought to my attention by images in various railroad magazines in the 1990s. The part of the B&O project that interested me the most were the railroaders and their solitary worklife in those small distinctive structures. For many tower operators, their only contact with the outside world was by talking to a dispatcher or train crew via the radio.

The secondary impetus was their status as endangered species. As time went on, more of the towers succumbed to modernization and by 2001 many were gone. Between 1995 and 2001, I made 21 trips to the area totaling 86 days.

One of the most interesting aspects of the B&O towers was that they were relics from another era in the middle of a modern railroad system. What images did you seek to convey that juxtaposition?

It’s truly remarkable, and fortunate for me, that these towers survived as long as they did. To convey how unique these historic towers were, I frequently sought to combine computer paraphernalia and strong-arm levers (used to line switches) in one image. This unusual juxtaposition of 19th and 20th-century technologies was dramatically brought to my attention in 1997 at the 75th Street Tower in Chicago, where the operator held a keyboard in one hand and a lever in the other, declaring “I’m spanning two centuries of technology.”

One of your most popular photography efforts, Suburban Symphony, focused on a topic that many railroad photographers overlook or ignore. What inspired you to focus so intensely on the New Jersey commuter scene?

There are a couple of reasons. First, these operations are close to my home and so they were a convenient target. Second, there’s a lot of trains. Third, there are a lot of people, and they can be depicted in both repose and hurried motion. Fourth, even though much of the motive power is homogenized, there is still a great variety of stations, which are well-lit at night. And fifth, I really enjoyed doing it and found more inspiration with each new day.

In 1955, I took my first railroad pictures at the CNJ station in Westfield but later forsook local operations for other railroad pursuits until the mid 1990s. My renewed interest in my local rail scene came about as my photographic focus shifted from the engines and trains to stations and people. I think this partly came about because I couldn’t go much farther creatively with what I had been doing. I had pretty much been there, done that with traditional railroad photography, but I also appreciated that I had to go through there to get here. There is something mildly poetic about returning to the places of your youth some 45 years later with an evolved vision and the equipment to realize that vision. Granted, these locations no longer had their 1950s charm, but they were being used by even more people.

During the years I shot the commuter operations, I initially had no intention of putting them in a show. But eventually I had amassed a huge trove of images and Suburban Symphony was conceived in 2001.

George Hiotis. Photo by Hank Koshollek/Courtesy of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art

Having accomplished so much as a photographer, what keeps you motivated to continue to go trackside and make memorable images?

I love photography. I’m motivated to go trackside by the enormous variety of subject matter, but also how light, both natural and artificial, strikes it to create different moods. In the case of sunlight, there are seasonal variations in its altitude and direction which favors certain locales in certain seasons. I’m kept busy planning when to shoot what and where. I’m motivated every time I’m at an old location and find a new way to shoot it. I’m motivated by the geometric symmetry of rails and how they curve with the landscape and how they reflect light, almost like neon tubes. I’m also motivated by closely examining my past images and seeing what I can improve upon next time because I enjoy the planning and execution of a picture.

Beyond the technical aspects of photography, I’m motivated by finding surviving remnants of railroading’s past, such as signs, structures and so on. Lastly, I’m motivated by the dynamism of trains, and how people relate to them.

What advice would you give to younger railroad photographers who are just starting out and want to create unique and memorable images?

Transcend the conventional. Be a creator rather than just a reproducer. We all know what a train looks like: show us something new. If you're following the herd, then your photos will look like everybody else’s. Think about what you want from your railroad photography, think about why you like railroads (not just trains), and then think about how you will interpret that. For instance, if they impress you because they are fast, let them blur. If they impress you because they’re big, use a low angle to emphasize that. Embrace risk and experimentation. So what if you blow it? There will always be other trains.

Lighting is a key factor in photography: A composition is what first motivates you, but you must understand when the light will be best for that specific composition. The difference between an ordinary photo and a great picture can be the quality and direction of light. Become acquainted with the seasonal motion of the sun. Some subjects are good summer shots, others are best in winter. If you shoot with the sun at your back or overhead, you’d better have a good reason for it. Sun at your back is only effective when it’s very low and warm. You want light that casts shadows, that strikes the subject at an angle of no less than 60 degrees to your lens. Don't be afraid to shoot with the sun in the picture either; good modern lenses can handle that.

Learn how to use and master your equipment so you aren’t losing fleeting opportunities while fumbling with it. It’s analogous to a musical instrument: once you master it, you make music and art, and can then push it to the limit.

Study and gain inspiration and knowledge from the work of other photographers, and not just the masters of railroad photography, such as Benson, Hastings, Hale, Shaughnessy and Steinheimer. Shooting subjects other than trains can also help refresh and broaden your approach to them too.

It’s also important to remember that railroading is more than engines and cars: it’s people, track, stations and so on. Plenty of great pictures don’t even contain a train. These days, people are too busy with their mobile devices to notice you photographing them, and your pictures may tell more of a story if people are included.  

Lastly, you must be your toughest critic. If you use the words “good enough” to excuse your mistakes, sloppiness or laziness, you're erecting a barrier to improvement. Every time I get lazy, I regret it. This is what works for me: Shoot often, look long and hard at your work, determine what bothers you, and decide what to do better next time. Most every picture I have made, no matter how highly praised, could use some small measure of improvement. Develop the skill and discipline to avoid sloppiness. Don’t think “I can correct it in Photoshop” because that doesn’t always work, and shouldn't be a crutch. Gain skill and do as much as you can in camera. All that being said, photo editing programs are still invaluable tools for realizing your vision. With Lightroom and Photoshop, you are now pretty much limited only by your imagination. You can now better express what’s in your head and heart. As your editing skills develop, your creativity will follow as your imagination expands, and you will gain a new awareness of what is possible at the time of capture and beyond.

If all the above sounds like work, that’s because it is. But if you want to go a few steps beyond, the reward will be worth it, for you will have gained control, have a sense of accomplishment, and will create pictures that please you.

All that being said, I also understand if what makes you happy is just having fun taking pictures of trains, that’s OK. I haven’t forgotten that it's a hobby, and hobbies should be fun.

George Hiotis will be one of the featured presenters at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s Conversations 2018 from April 13 to 15 at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois. For more information, visit http://www.railphoto-art.org/.

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