My first railroad photos turn 40 years old

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

They were neither well executed nor worth much as great art. Some were poorly composed, and others were over or under exposed. But they were amazing sights to me -- my first action railroad pictures with a good 35mm camera. And they were made 40 years ago this month.

The occasion was the first good weather in the winter of 1978 when, as a 16-year-old fan, I was ready to try out the Nikkormat FT-3 that my parents had given me the Christmas before. They’d heard my disappointment in my Kodak Pocket 110 camera’s images and seen the kind but firm rejection notices from Trains Editor David P. Morgan. Mom, God bless her, stopped enough fans at the Cass Scenic Railroad’s railfan weekend the spring before, to find out what kind of camera was needed for her boy to produce publishable images. After Christmas, dad took over with lessons about making photos: About shutter speeds, f-stops, composition. 10 years of reading Trains magazine didn’t hurt either when it came to knowing what a train picture should look like.

So, when there was a decent Saturday that February, we left our home in Franklin, N.C., to visit relatives an hour away in dad’s hometown of Westminster, S.C., and photograph what we could on the Southern Railway main line between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Ga. The camera was loaded with Plus-X ASA 125 speed film. I was ready to go.

The day turned out to be a good one with a parade of through freights with big six-axle units up front, a work train that had been cleaning up a derailment, and lots of bay window cabooses. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Southern’s main line south of Greenville, S.C., was mostly a nighttime railroad, so we missed much of the show. But what I saw and photographed that day pleased me, and it was the beginning of a lifetime of enjoyment and a fulfilling career. From time to time, as my travels have allowed me, I’ve been back to Westminster and snapped a photo of a train. I need to do that again as it’s been a while, and neither I nor my cousins are getting any younger.

In the 40 years since, I’ve made thousands of images trackside and on board trains. But I’ll always think back to those 20 first black and white negatives, and the day when a new passion was born in the place where my father had grown up. Dad was right. Your life is like the wink of an eye. All of this seems like only yesterday in some respects and another time and place in others.

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