John Dziobko’s photographic legacy will endure

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Two PRR classics — a K4s and GG1 — congregate at Trenton, N.J., in 1954. John Dziobko photo
I never met John Dziobko. Now, after reading all the recent tributes to him on social media, I realize I really missed out. This wildly prolific and unfailingly enthusiastic railroad photographer obviously touched a lot of lives.

Dziobko died Aug. 5 at age 89 in Madison, Wis. He leaves behind not only a huge archive of mostly 35mm color slides, but an entire community of admirers, who often referred to him as “the Godfather.” You can see why when you check out his personal website, There you can peruse hundreds of his photographs, conveniently arranged by subject and location.

Born in 1932 in Newark, N.J., and growing up in the Garden State, the young Dziobko (pronounced JEB-co, a Ukrainian name) fell under the spell of his neighborhood railroads, including the Pennsylvania Railroad; Delaware, Lackawanna & Western; and Central of New Jersey. When he moved to Rock Island, Ill., in 1974, he adopted a whole new home territory: the Midwest. In later years, he traveled much of the world. 

Early on he was a practitioner of color photography, influenced hugely by the bold railroad color schemes that accompanied the transition from steam to diesel. In fact, although he started with black-and-white film in 1948, he switched to slides two years later because, as he stated on his website, “I see trains in color, that’s how I wanted to preserve them.”

Southern Pacific’s overnight Lark arrives at Los Angeles in September 1957. John Dziobko photo
Preserve them he did. His photographs have become a mainstay in railroad publications, especially over the past 20 years, showing up with some regularity in all the key magazines, as well as in the pages of such Morning Sun Books titles as “Pennsylvania Railroad Trackside” and “Trackside Around the Garden State.”

If an editor needed a ’50s or ’60s shot from the Northeast or Midwest (and, occasionally, the Far West), John likely had it. Maybe a B&O President-class Pacific on a passenger train? Check. How about a Burlington F3 diesel in Chinese red and black? Of course! How about Brunswick-green GG1s around Philadelphia? Bingo. Dziobko was universal in his approaches, seemingly without prejudice when it came to action vs. roster shots, steam vs. diesel (and electric), structures vs. railroaders. All of it captured his fancy.

Some of that might have evolved out of his fascination for variety as expressed in numbers: Dziobko had a 30-year career as a mathematician and statistician with the Department of the Army, first based in New Jersey and later in Rock Island.

Among the editors who appreciate the depth and quality of Dziobko’s collection is Steve Barry of Railfan & Railroad. In Dziobko, Barry sees a person who in many ways personified the avocation of railroad photography and, perhaps more to the point, its ultimate purpose: to have fun.

Lackawanna SW8 diesels mingle with E8s and a GP7 at Hoboken in May 1956. John Dziobko photo
“Perhaps what I admired most about John was his never-ending enthusiasm,” says Barry. “He was definitely determined not to miss anything! His constant persistence, even in the face of declining mobility and eyesight, rubbed off onto everyone around him, and everyone chipped in to make sure John got his shot. Climbing hills, getting his camera set at night photo sessions — John definitely got by with a little help from his (numerous) friends, who were always looking out for him.”

Another admirer is Rob McGonigal, who retired in 2021 after 20 years at the helm of Classic Trains. “John’s wonderful color photos enlivened the pages of our magazines for many years,” says McGonigal. “He was an invaluable resource for images from the 1950s and ’60s, particularly of the Pennsylvania Railroad. His enthusiasm for sharing his work with our readers made him a pleasure to work with.”

And this from Scott Lothes, president and executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art: “John was a regular and enthusiastic attendee of our conferences in Lake Forest, Illinois. Despite having witnessed more colorful and varied eras of railroading, he always seemed to appreciate all forms of railroad photography and art, including the most contemporary.”

Lehigh Valley 4-8-4 relegated to work-train duty at Hillside, N.J., in July 1950. John Dziobko photo
Dziobko retired from his Army job in 1990. Along the way he married his wife, Gloria, in 1972 in New Jersey. Sadly, she died in 1979. In recent years Dziobko had lived with his dear friends Ray and Ruth Peacock in Madison, Wis., and later at a care facility nearby. His passing has affected Ray deeply, but also left him determined to preserve the Godfather’s legacy.  

“For me, the passing of John, while expected, has been deeply emotional. I knew it’d be tough. I cared for and loved that guy," Ray says. “John had no children or close family, and as he grew older it was clear he needed an advocate. He trusted me with his affairs. I promised him his legacy of preserving railroad history through his nearly 70 years of photography would be handed on intact to future generations of railroad fans to study and enjoy.”

Many of John Dziobko’s friends and admirers are likely to be in Madison at 1 p.m. tomorrow, August 10, for his visitation and funeral at Cress Funeral Home, Madison West, 3610 Speedway Road, Madison, WI 53705. In the true spirit of his photography, Dziobko left instructions that asks for donations be made to a railroad historical organization, museum, or preservation group, as well as to local humane societies.  

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