The work of David Plowden in Winter 2006 NRHS Bulletin

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Otto Vondrak
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The work of David Plowden in Winter 2006 NRHS Bulletin

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NRHS Bulletin - Winter 2006

A new Bulletin arrived in my mailbox earlier this week, and I just had a chance to get into the issue. The NRHS is really sticking to its word to catch up with the calendar. The cover date on this issue is only one year behind. Looks like White River put this one together. Overall, the issue looks good, I think the opening spread on gray background is a little clunky, and someone should tell the NRHS that Impact is not a font to be used by designers. Grumble, grumble. I have to have something to complain about, right? Well, sit down and grab some coffee or beverage of choice, as I have a lot to say about this issue's main content.

The cover story is David Plowden. I have just started to recognize that name. Last week, my friend Pat told me he was going to the George Eastman House to see Plowden and have him sign some books. Plowden. Why do I know that name? I know Benson, Steinheimer, Shaugnessy, Hastings... The more I read the cover feature story, the more I realized that in the course of my self-education as a railfan, I nearly missed one of the iconic rail photographers of our era.

And I don't throw around the word "iconic" loosely. As I paged through the very well-written feature by Tony Reevy, I realized I knew each one of the photos presented. We have seen them many times over, in books, magazines, promotional materials and more. Reproduced so many times I assumed that they were tried, tried and true stock photography that came from the depths of an AAR publicity office or one of the large photo archives. You know, you reach into a bin of "train photos" and get these romantic images of steam, weathered old conductors, and tough yard workers? You know, the ones that are anonymously labeled "PHOTO COURTESY DELAWARE & HUDSON RAILWAY."

The portrait of the D&H yard worker at Oneonta, NY warmed up a radio tube in the back of my head. I'd seen this picture. Or ones like it. I went to my bookshelf and pulled out a thin hardcover book called "The Iron Road," a photo essay from the 1970s meant for the younger crowd. Back in 1996, I was a sophomore at RIT, and one of my friends down the hall was a photojournalism major. He stopped by one day and said, "Hey, I was at a yard sale and I found this for you," and handed me a copy of "The Iron Road." The text was simple, but the photos were really beautiful... but beyond that, they told a STORY. What's more, the intro text talked about a subject near and dear to my heart- the ex-NYC Putnam Division. The photos didn't have anything to do with the Put, but that didn't seem to matter. I couldn't have told you who wrote the book or who took the photos. To me, it looked like one of those projects from the 1970s where the author had written some beautiful, romantic prose, and needed some (seemingly) "stock" artwork to go with it. It was a good pairing. I was a little off-put when I read in the Bulletin article that Plowden "disowned" this book project because he was going through a tough divorce at the time. Would he be displeased if I asked him to autograph my copy? I think it's a very good, accessible work (and now I realize, my introduction to Plowden's style).

Only recently has David Plowden's work come to my attention. Little have I realized that his work has been all around me. When I compare his photography to "stock," I feel I am not attaching any negativity to it. Good stock photography tells a story and communicates an idea without unnecessary clutter or detail (it allows the viewer to complete the story in his/her mind). The more I study Plowden's work, the more I see how he understands this kind of clear communication. Some may dismiss his work as sterile because it lacks the expected details we see in "railfan" photography. You can't see the engine number! You can't see the name of the railroad on the conductor's hat badge! What station is that, where's the sign? There's too much vapor, you can't see the background! If those are the details you're hung up on, then you'll never appreciate these photos.

Plowden was O. Winston Link's assistant in the late 1950s as the N&W project was winding down. After a stint with Link, Plowden went north to Canada (so as not to "poach" on Link's territory down south) to record the last years of steam as the calendar flipped to 1960. That struck a chord with me, how Plowden went to RECORD. That didn't mean a three-quarter roster shot of every engine left in steam. It meant iconic images like the one feautred on the cover of the Bulletin (that has been reproduced many times over). It's as if Plowden was saying, "Look here- THIS is what it was all about," with steam and vapor blocking out everything except this massive steam locomotive... look to the left, and you'll see a small figure in silhouette climbing into the cab. Draw your own conclusions as to what this means to you, I won't over-analyze.

I'm sure many of you are pulling you hair out, screaming, "How could you NOT know DAVID PLOWDEN?!!" I guess the truth is I knew (or recognized) his work, but knew little about the photographer. There are many photographers out there whose work has inspired me. But I realize now that David Plowden is my hero. Without getting too full of myself, one of my goals when I'm trackside is not only to take a pretty picture, but to try to tell a story while I'm doing it. Someone popularized the tounge-in-cheek key to good photography is "f8 and be there," and I appended "f8 and be there with a purpose." A lot of what Mr. Plowden relates in his interview resonates with me. I had the chance to meet Link when I was 13, but I was too young to understand the scope of his work or the technical triumphs of his projects. I read that Plowden spent the latter part of his career as a teacher. I As I continue my railfan self-education, I hope I get to meet this very interesting fellow, and perhaps learn a thing or two about "train pictures."

Moving on from the emotional high of the Plowden feature, we have a story on the Greenville & Northern Railway, authored by James D. Sheppard. The author has shared a close relationship with the line, and the story starts off with one of his photos taken in 1941, when he was only 13. The story starts on a sad note, describing how the line had been embargoed in 1998 because of the condition of some key bridges, and legal battles were for naught as the line was torn up in June 2007 (whoa- not bad for a magazine with a cover date of Winter 2006. Sorry, couldn't resist) and turned into a bike trail. The story continues through the Pinsly era of the 1950s through the 1970s. The author recounts a day he rode along with the crew in 1983, and details typical operations. The photos are interesting, and definitely show the rural character of the line. The story fast-forwards to 1997 and the RailTex era, and the eventual departure of industry and the inevitable embargo and abandonment. A nifty map goes along with the feature to help orientate the reader. An interesting feature for a shortline with a colorful history. The G&N is probably best known for its GE 70-tonners wearing the Pinsly family colors of red with yellow striping.

I want to add my standard boilerplate comment about the lack of NRHS organizational news in an otherwise redundant railfan publication... but I'm still enamoured with the Plowden feature. I need some more time with those thoughtful, unobtrusive photos.

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