Great Railroad Photography
From the editors of Railfan & Railroad Magazine. Carstens Publications, Inc., 108 Phil Harden Road, Fredon Township, Newton, NJ 07860; http://www.carstens-publications.com/; 8.5 x 11 in; perfect-bound, 98 pages, 124 color and 5 b/w photos, 1 illustration; $14.95.
Among those who have an interest in the photography of railroads — or at least in making photographs that rise above the typical output of the railfan photography subculture — there has been a steady incessant griping about a lack of an outlet. Industry publications have only limited opportunities for photographers, and consumer publications often stick close to their railfan bases. It’s not that these publications don’t have an interest in more artistic forms of railroad photography, it is more that, among railroad photographers, they are sometimes perceived as more conservative in their tastes. A desire for a magazine or other publication aimed directly at the photographer’s market simmered. Last year, Carstens — publishers of Railfan, decided to take a risk and put out just such a publication: Great Railroad Photography, the first of a planned annual publication run.
GRP is, essentially, an all-features railfan magazine. Within its covers will be found no departments, no columns, no news articles. The entirety of the publication is dedicated to (primarily) full-color feature stories, eight in all. There are no columns or departments, save for an introduction by editor Steve Barry. A few random pages of advertisements at the beginning and the end of the volume remind you that this is a magazine (and not a slim book), but overall the real estate is given over to content, making the publication feel very upmarket.
Yet I use the description “all features railfan magazine” with intent. The cover photo is a clear and crisp but not particularly groundbreaking front-on photo of a tourist steam locomotive. Inside, there are some real stand-out features, like Kevin Scanlon’s photo-essay on the steel mill landscapes of Pittsburgh, Steve Crise’s portrait of the Nevada Northern steam railroad, and Keith Burgess’ moody, expressionistic photos. But alongside these are other features — notably a spread on the Milwaukee Road by Karl Zimmerman and a story on the Clinchfield Railroad by Ron Flannary — that feel far less photography-oriented. I want to be very specific here: it is not that these stories are poor, but it is that they are centered more on a historical narrative and don’t feel like they belong in a magazine purporting to be about “great railroad photography.” They appeal on the basis of historical content, not their photography, and thus their presence strikes a discordant note in the publication.
The pattern of each feature is somewhat uneven. While each holds to a similar layout of fairly large photos and very little text, sometimes one wonders why the text is there at all. This is especially true of articles like Elrond Lawrence’s piece on the Santa Fe Railway. It is as if the creators of GRP are not yet sure what this new photography-centered animal of a publication would be, and still in the hunt for a model, they’ve simply applied the traditional railfan photo-essay model and reduced the text ratio by about 2/3rds. Far better layouts are put forth for the Crise and Burgess pieces. Each is cleanly displayed, there are no errant or random snips of a larger text floated on unexpected plains of paper, and there’s a certain cohesive tightness to the design and layout. Both concentrate — properly — on letting the images speak for themselves, and don’t make the horrid mistake of stacking both lengthy captions and text content on the same pages.
GRP is published on heavy, full-gloss stock. It is sensually luscious to hold. Color reproduction is top-notch, and I found no obvious flaws or color casts, although the black-and-white images in the Scanlon peice seem rather dark, and the images from the two vintage oriented features seem a bit washed out.
The bottom line question to ask is, does Great Railroad Photography live up to its name, and to its own cover blurb, which states that it is “an exciting journey crossing boundaries of photographic style and expression?” My answer is: not yet. The 2010 issue contains among its pages a few strong pieces and some mostly elegant layouts, but it is still feeling its way around, still developing its voice and its philosophical bent. Despite these flaws, the production team that put together the magazine deserves a lot of credit. They are the first publishing house to attempt to fill the photography niche in a long time, and they’ve put together an ambitious first try. If Carstens does indeed make this an annual publication, I strongly suspect that Great Railroad Photography will mature into a substantial role as an outlet for artistic — or great, as it were — railroad photography.
Great Railroad Photography is available directly from the publisher.