Lessons from Jim Shaughnessy

Posted by Justin Franz
on Sunday, April 29, 2018

What considered normal in the past - like a private car on the rear of an Amtrak train in Whitefish, Montana - can become rare almost over night. Photo by Justin Franz.
I briefly met Jim Shaughnessy on a gorgeous winter day about 10 years ago at Greenwich Jct., New York on the Batten Kill Railroad. I don’t even think I had the courage to say anything to the legendary northeastern rail photographer beyond a cordial greeting, but I do remember the brief conversation a friend of mine had with Shaughnessy. It went something like this:

“Sir, you’ve shot it all, probably with better motive power and better light too, so why do you keep coming out here,” my friend inquired.

“What the heck else am I going to do?” Shaughnessy shot back. “Sit at home?”

Shaughnessy witnessed and recorded what many would consider the glory days of North American railroading. He captured for eternity the final triumphs of the steam era and the dawn the diesel age. And while many photographers threw in the towel at the end of steam, Shaughnessy kept on shooting the changing landscape of North American railroading. It’s one reason why author and former Trains Magazine editor Kevin P. Keefe calls Shaughnessy one of the “essential” American railroad photographers because he embraced the entire railroad, not just the motive power.

“I think you can make the case that one reason Shaughnessy is such an essential photographer is that he so enthusiastically embraced the diesel,” Keefe says. “He made it okay for railfans to embrace the invader!”

Luckily for us, Shaughnessy’s collection of images spanning more than six decades is now on its way to the Center for Railroad Photography and Art for preservation where hopefully future photographers can pull inspiration from his artful images. But when people look at Shaughnessy’s images, I hope another lesson emerges: never stop shooting. Railroading, like life, is in a constant state of change and what might be mundane today will be gone tomorrow.

Just a few months ago, I stood in a snow covered field before dawn waiting to shoot four private passenger cars on the rear end of Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The cars were from the Friends of the 261 fleet and had been in Whitefish, Montana for a long weekend following an Amtrak charter. It was cold, my feet were wet and I was almost late to work, but I stuck it out and stayed to get the shot. Not because I thought I would never be able to shoot something like this again - after all, Whitefish was until recently a popular destination for private rail cars - but what the heck else was I going to do? Sit at home? Considering Amtrak’s recent decision to restrict the movement of private cars to non-terminal destinations like Whitefish, it was worth an hour of cold feet.

Shaughnessy knew that change was the only constant - it’s why he kept shooting after he had already done it all - and it’s why we should keep at it too.

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