Everything Looks Worse in Black and White?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, July 31, 2018

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

To cut to the chase, I don’t think so.  To the contrary, sometimes it can make memories look better than if they were depicted in color.  While the subjects that we cross paths with almost always exist in color in the real world (encountering a truly monochrome scene would actually be quite unusual, although certain cloudy days seemingly come close – and a Penn Central passenger train with all stainless steel cars might fit this paradigm), many times the color seems to be “lifeless”, rather than “living”. 

Similarly, sometimes the “unvarnished truth” isn’t quite up to the standards of our own memories.  I’ve noticed, particularly in scanning old (1960s) black & white negatives, that rail facilities, particularly yards, seemed to attract an immense amount of trash and debris, which on occasion can be further confused with things like dust and scratches on the negatives.

Re truth versus reality, it’s often comforting to remember the good, and either forget, or ignore, what wasn’t so great.  A popular venue for this for people of a certain age is passenger trains, especially those of the postwar streamliner “glory days”.  (The same was probably true for the heyday of deluxe limiteds from the heavyweight passenger car era, but few fans are still with us that have personal memories of the 1930s).

By the mid-1960s, most of the “glory” had been sucked out of the intercity passenger business in the U.S.  Sure, the Super Chief and Twentieth Century Limited still ran, but they lacked things that had been there ten to fifteen years prior.  Yes, the Super still had the “Turquoise Room” as of 1966, but most of the year it didn’t have enough sleeping car patrons to run as a separate train, and was combined with the El Capitan, previously an all-coach train.  The observation cars that had once carried the markers on ATSF trains 17 and 18 were gone, having been converted to “regular” sleeping cars without rounded ends.

On the New York Central, the Century did retain its observations, right up until the bitter end, but it also had begun to carry coaches (and sleepercoach economy sleeping accommodations).  As was the case with the Santa Fe, sleeping car patronage had declined considerably; during the 1966 airline strike, which swelled NYC 25 and 26 to 18 car consists, the coach/sleepercoach passengers outnumbered the “first-class” sleeper customers by a factor probably greater than two to one.

With this in mind, indulge me in a little nostalgia via the picture above, of the New York Central’s James Whitcomb Riley stopping at Lafayette, Indiana, on August 16, 1966.  The airline strike is over, but the Riley’s consist remains expanded due bookings made before the strike was settled.

For those of you not familiar with this, it was the premier day train in the Chicago-Cincinnati market.  When the post-World War II streamlined cars were placed in service in the late 1940s, the train was equipped with stainless steel coaches, typically of Pullman-Standard manufacture, accompanied by a fluted-side aluminum combine from American Car and Foundry, plus a Budd-built grill diner and tavern observation, the latter identical to those on the railroad’s stylish all-coach Pacemaker on the New York-Chicago run. 

You may notice something different about the photo.  It’s been processed in a manner known as “Posterization”.  Wikipedia.com provides a useful explanation:

Posterization or posterisation of an image entails conversion of a continuous gradation of tone to several regions of fewer tones, with abrupt changes from one tone to another.”  Furthermore, “A posterized image often has the same general appearance, but portions of the original image that presented gradual transitions are replaced by abrupt changes in shading and gradation from one area of tone to another.”

Another way of looking at this is that there are far fewer shades of gray than would be seen in a traditional black-and-white rendering of this photo (and in case anyone is wondering, fewer than fifty…).

Does this remove some of the grit and grime visible in the ‘standard’ photo that I took?  Does the contrast inherent in this process have a better chance of garnering a viewer’s attention?  Yes, of course.  Is the result interesting; does it produce an emotional response?  You tell me! 

I’d argue that there is a place in photography for both straightforward depiction of events and evoking emotional response (and I’m happy to admit that both of these can be often can combined in ‘conventional’ photographic processing, although skill, and possibly, luck will be required). 

Looking at this result did evoke some of the Riley’s former glory for me.  Author Don Ball, Jr., in his book Railroads, An American Journey (p. 103) states that

In the peerage of the last steam-powered limiteds, one train carried on in the grand manner after diesels had taken over virtually everywhere.  That train, of course, was New York Central’s James Whitcomb Riley.   

In reality, the train I rode that evening across Indiana, as well as small portions of Illinois and Ohio, had a lot more in common with its 1955 self than I would have expected.  There were five Pullman-Standard coaches in the 3000 series, with stainless steel fluting.  They were full of people, and even at this late date, all seats were reserved in advance.

While the food in the diner probably could not have been described as Lucullan (such as preferred by a previous well-known rail author and photographer), it likely was quite similar to what would have been found on this train in the 1950s.  After all, this was the Riley, not the Century.   

Following dinner, I went back to the tavern lounge, which was the rear car.  The observations had vanished from this run around 1960, but the configuration of the car I was in was essentially identical, sans rounded blind end and rear-facing windows.

All in all, I had a wonderful ride on a classic postwar daytime streamliner, in 1966 … and didn’t realize it.  Yes, there were Geeps, instead of E units, or steam, and a modest amount of head-end cars up front, but the passenger consist, as well as the service and ambience, was essentially perfect.  Looking back from now, however, it would have been nice to have booked a travel date when the observation wasn’t in the shop.

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