Donald Furler: champion of the wedge shot

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Westbound passenger train 1, the Erie Limited, led by Erie K-5-A 4-6-2 No. 2938 passing just outside of Furler's home at Glen Rock, N.J., on June 1, 1943, with engineer Bill Smith at the throttle. Donald Furler; all photos from the collection of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art
For a trailblazer, timing is everything. That’s certainly true in railroad photography, which has seen its share of tectonic shifts over the years.

Most of us don’t think of the classic three-quarter “wedge” action photo as trailblazing. That standard and very obvious approach to shooting trains has been around at least since the late 1930s, when consumer cameras finally were capable of effectively stopping motion. We’ve moved way beyond that over the ensuing three generations.

But the best wedge photos, composed with care and executed with precision, can be works of art. Once upon a time, it was considered a daring style of photography. And one of its true heroes was Donald Furler. 

I was unfamiliar with Furler until recently. The man’s credit line was a fixture in Trainsmagazine in the 1940s and ’50s, but I didn’t start reading the magazine until 1965 and spent the next few decades unaware of his vast body of work, something I’m embarrassed to admit. 

I’m glad to say I’m now up to speed, thanks to Alan Furler, who donated his father’s archive to the Center for Railroad Photography & Art (where I serve on the board of directors). A whole new audience is discovering these wonderful images. This past weekend, at the Center’s annual “Conversations” symposium at Lake Forest College, near Chicago, Alan gave an affectionate and witty overview of his dad’s work. 

Westbound freight train led by Erie N-2 2-8-2 No. 3212 and N-1 No. 3018 at Waldwick, N.J., on Valentine's Day, 1943. Donald Furler
Furler came of age in the late 1930s, when cumbersome view cameras were giving way to the comparatively agile 4 x 5 products of Graflex, usually a Speed Graphic or a Crown Graphic. Bored with the hoary conventions of the roster photograph (rods down, low sun, no wires), Furler embraced the new format in search of true action.

Furler’s stamping ground was the railroad empire surrounding his home in northern New Jersey. He roamed the Poconos and the Catskills, worked his way up and down the Hudson Valley, covered the New York City area, and became on intimate terms with the Lehigh & Hudson River, Lehigh Valley, Reading, PRR, New York Central, Delaware & Hudson, Central of New Jersey, Lackawanna, and all the other railroads serving the region.

And then there was the Erie, Furler’s favorite. He photographed the Erie’s New York Division from seemingly every imaginable vantage point, creating a compelling account of a classic steam railroad at high tide. 

Westbound freight train led by Erie S-1 2-8-4 No. 3320 crossing Delaware River Bridge at Mill Rift, Pa., on December 1, 1939. Donald Furler
Furler came by his loyalty to the Erie honestly. From his birth in 1917 he always lived within earshot of the Erie’s tracks. As a youth he became a familiar figure to local train crews. One veteran engineer, William J. “Bill” Smith, befriended the young Furler, even to the point of remembering to make smoke every time the photographer came into view out the cab window of the hogger’s 4-6-2. 

After studying mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, Furler spent the war working for Curtiss Wright Aviation, where he tested aircraft engines. This was followed by a brief stint on the Erie, where he worked in various towers and got to know the railroad cold. Eventually he moved on to a long career at Continental Can Co., from which he retired in 1982.

The Erie portrayed in Furler’s photographs was a monumental railroad, the antithesis of the downtrodden property that limped into the Conrail era as the Erie Lackawanna in the 1970s.

Furler’s Erie was a railroad of massive physical plant, with heavy Pacifics on passenger trains and burly Berkshires on freights, roaring down a splendid right of way of immaculate track and ruler-straight ballast. It proudly ran the Erie Limited, the Lake Cities, and the Atlantic Expressand Pacific Express

The railroad was a great subject for Furler’s photographic approach. Few photographers managed to cram as much information and drama into a simple three-quarter composition. His photos are alive with detail, from the sunlit view of a locomotive’s running gear he always strived to achieve, to the deep, sharp backgrounds that yielded a wider railroad context. 

Westbound freight train led by Erie R-3 2-10-2 No. 4217 (with an auxiliary tender) near Tuxedo, N.Y., on October 22, 1944. Donald Furler
His favorite vantage point was a useful elevation, even if it meant climbing a signal or an adjacent boxcar or a steep cliff. He was fearless in his pursuit.

Of the four images presented here, my favorite is the most traditional, as it were. Not far from his home at Glen Rock, N.J., Furler fixes his viewfinder on train No. 1, the westbound Erie Limited, as his engineer friend, Bill Smith, pours on the smoke. Did a steam locomotive ever appear more overpowering than K-5-A 2938 does at this moment on June 1, 1943? Every detail in the photo is tack sharp, yet there is nothing frozen about the scene. It’s alive with urgency. 

By all accounts, Donald Furler led a full life, surrounded not only by his wife Marie and their four children, but also his railfan friends. Among them were other notable railroad photographers, including Robert Collins, Bob Malinoski, Jim Shaughnessy, and William P. Price. Furler died in 1994. 

Furler’s work won wider notice in 2004, when photographer John Gruber included him in an article for the Center’s Railroad Heritagequarterly, entitled “Creative, Almost Forgotten Photographers.” The story included another shooter who was also a Furler patron, Al Kalmbach. 

At his Lake Forest presentation, Alan Furler proudly presented some of his father’s best photographs, many of them in the time-honored wedge format. He said he wanted his dad “to be less forgotten.”

Mission accomplished, Alan.

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