Illuminating the dark side of steam

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, December 13, 2012

Editor Jim Wrinn interviews photographer Olaf Haensch in Wernigerode, Germany in September 2012. Olaf Haensch photo.

Harz train steams by the Quedlinburg, Germany, railway station. Olaf Haensch photo.

A Harz 2-10-2T steams at the summit of Brocken, with the lights of Wernigerode, Germany, visible in the valley below. Olaf Haensch photo.

Olaf Haensch is a lucky man. He was born near Wernigerode, Germany, 36 years ago. His family did not own a car, so they traveled by bus to visit nearby relatives, which meant that at an early age he discovered the Harz narrow-gauge railways in a particularly charming part of rural Germany. Thus began his lifelong passion for this meter-gauge steam mecca.

Fortunately for all of us, his love for this railroad evolved over the years, and in 2011, he published his 128-page, 100-photo book of night photos taken between 2005 and 2010. The oversized volume, written in German and called NachtZüge, or Night Train, is compelling because of its amazing breadth of images made after dark. To say they are masterfully creative is a disservice to both the man and the fruit of his imagination — the photos range from the perspective of ballast with an approaching train in the background, to the bottom of the ashpit as a fireman cleans the grates, to a bird’s-eye view of an engine terminal from atop a sand tower, to the dizzying view of an overhaul from a shop crane perched directly overhead. But the railroad is not the focal point as much as it is a thread permeating daily life in this mountainous region — the steam trains become the backdrop to everything from soccer games to couples sharing a drink or a lovely fräulein luxuriating in a bubble bath. Such a striking book met with success: The first printing sold out in a month, and it is now well into its second printing.

I had met Haensch two years ago at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s annual spring conference in Lake Forest, Ill. When I told him I would be visiting Germany for InnoTrans 2012 and making a visit to the Harz after the trade and technology show in September, he was receptive to meeting me at the railroad that has made him the European O. Winston Link of our time. So, I visited with Haensch on a Saturday afternoon when no fewer than five coal-burning 2-10-2Ts were in steam. We sat on a station bench, within feet of where some of the book’s most dramatic images were made. We talked about the railroad, his book, and his passion for the subject matter.

“I’ve known the Harz since childhood, and it is truly special,” he says. “No other railroad in the world is like it.” That statement is true, given that regular steam in China died just a few years ago. The Harz rosters 25 steam locomotives, 16 of them operable, and it is not uncommon for eight or 10 hot engines to crowd the engine terminal at Wernigerode on a typical night. The Harz is best known as a scenic railroad, carrying tourists to the top of 3,800-foot Mount Brocken, where they hike, bike, and enjoy the view. But the railroad’s U-shaped system also regularly transports locals between towns, either by steam train or motorcars — doodlebugs to those of us in the U.S.

Like many such railroads, the Harz runs most trains during daylight hours, but Haensch sought out the handful of trains that run after nightfall and created 150 to 200 images, from which he chose the best for the book. Many took hours of setup time. He most often set up in daylight, carrying in equipment by foot, waiting in knee-deep snow and bitter cold, and hoping that everything would go right. It usually did, but from time to time, radio-synchronized photographic equipment didn’t work properly, steam trailed off in the wrong direction, or the train was late. Retakes were frequent, and disappointing when some images took five to six hours of preparation. Making things easier, the railroad cooperated by granting Haensch access and opening up as never before. But it was a project that consumed hours, days, and weeks.

Inspiration came from many sources. Link, whom Haensch hadn’t heard of until after the great American night photographer’s death in 2001, was one. Another was the late American photographer Richard Steinheimer. Yet another was a most unlikely source: Hollywood. “I love Hitchcock movies with their dramatic lighting,” Haensch says. “That and The Lord of the Rings.”

The increasing availability of exceptionally good-quality digital cameras is creating a new generation of action night photographers around the globe. Haensch’s advice: “Be creative. Never stop developing ideas for new images. Know what you want to try to create, and go for it.”

Haensch, who is an editor at the German version of Model Railroader (not related to the U.S. version published by Trains’ parent company, Kalmbach Publishing Co.), lectures in Germany frequently on his night photography of the Harz. Inevitably, fans of his work and the railroad ask if there will be a second volume. To this the photographer replies that it is possible, but he makes no promises. The first volume required a lot of time and a tremendous emotional commitment. After a health scare last year that left Haensch hospitalized for two months, he is once again enjoying life. As I told you from the first, Olaf Haensch is a lucky man.

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