Behind John Gruber’s bold body of work, a quiet legend

Posted by Justin Franz
on Monday, October 15, 2018

John Gruber's photo on the cover of Trains Magazine in 1961.
In the 1960s, John Gruber’s photographs exploded onto the pages of Trains Magazine, bringing readers unique and daring views few had seen before. But in real life, Gruber could easily walk into a crowded room unnoticed.

“In person he was so quiet and reserved,” recalls writer, photographer and longtime Trains contributor George Hamlin. “But he had a passion and you could see that passion within his extensive body of work.”

Gruber, a prolific photographer, writer, editor and founder of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, died on Oct. 9 following a brief illness. He was 82.

Hamlin first started reading Trains  in the 1960s, about the same time legendary editor David P. Morgan discovered Gruber, a Chicago-native who spent most of his life in Wisconsin. It was in Gruber’s hometown, however, where he created one of his most iconic works in a 1965 photo essay on Chicago Union Station. But Gruber’s talent extended far beyond the camera. Over the years he wrote numerous books, edited Pentrex’s Vintage Rails and later CRPA’s Railroad Heritage.

“John will be remembered for his entire body of work, not just the amazing pictures he took,” Hamlin says.

Photographer Blair Kooistra, who received the Railroad & Locomotive Historical Society lifetime achievement award from Gruber, says rail photography would not be the same without an organization like CRPA.

“As great as Gruber was as a photographer, his talents as a promoter, visionary and catalyst were even more important to us in this photographic pursuit,” Kooistra says. “Would there have been an equivalent to a Center for Railroad Photography & Art without his creating it? No way of telling. But John was out there over 25 years ago with the idea that it was important to recognize and document the history of railroad photography and photographers.”

Elrond Lawrence, a California based author and photographer, says his own photography was influenced by Gruber, who always approached the railroad as a photojournalist. Gruber strove to record not just the infrastructure that makes up the railroad world, but the people who inhabited it.  

“His documentary style of photojournalism was thrilling and helped me push my own style forward,” Lawrence says. “He inspired me to appreciate railroading on a deeper level — not just through a railfan's eyes, but through a historian's eyes.”

Kevin Keefe, former editor and publisher of Trains, says that Gruber had a unique ability to get close to his subjects and tell stories that few others saw.

"What always struck me about John's work is how distinct it is from just about anything else in the world of railfan photography," Keefe says. "While it's true that he's been a huge influence on the entire field, his photos still don't look like anyone else's. I think that's because many of his earlier heroes were news photographers, not railroad photographers. Although he'd never say it, I think John's first instinct was to hold up his work against what he was seeing in the outside world, not in the railfan media. Like all the best professional photojournalists, he got in and around his subjects with fearless detachment, which helps explain why his best photos were usually his most intimate."

But more than his bold body of writing and photography work, Hamlin, Kooistra, Keefe and Lawrence say they will mostly remember Gruber for his kindness, humor, and passion.

“John’s humility and quiet energy inspired me as much as his achievements,” Lawrence says. “His passing is an immeasurable loss to journalism but his influence will never fade. John has built a rare, incredible legacy that will last for generations and he’s left it in talented and capable hands.”

“I’m so blessed to have known him.”

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