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Picture of the Month The Lone Conductor

By NYIP Staff on February 9th, 2009
The Lone Conductor

The great days of railroading in America are gone now. We still have trains, many of them, but the aura, the mystique, the sheer romance of the railroads has vanished and given way to other means of transportation.

Most of you are too young, I fear, to have experienced those days. Great names like the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe; the Ohio State Limited, the Twentieth Century; the Chief & the Super Chief; the Florida East Coast Line; the Bangor & Aroostook, the Louisvillle & Nashville, the Union Pacific, the Denver & Western, and so forth.

Or the railroad songs? "Casey Jones"? "The Wreck of the Old 97"? "The Wabash Cannonball"? Hank Snow singing "I'm Movin' On" or Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line"? And you probably have never heard that old time radio show on Saturday morning, celebrating American railroad days with the announcer's sonorous voice booming out the words Croton Falls, Harmon,125th Street, and Grand Central Station!

When I saw NYI Student Heather Pierce's excellent photograph of the train conductor standing at the rear of the caboose and gazing down the length of the track I was filled with nostalgia for those good old days. A photograph can do that, you know, touch for a moment the heart strings, remind you of what used to be and never will be again. Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns called it.

Heather's from Minneapolis, a great railroad center, what with all the granaries and silos along the tracks. If you don't bring the corn, the wheat, and the flour from the mills you don't get the Cheerios and the Corn Flakes on the breakfast table in the morning. The simplicity of it all astounds me (sometimes).

As we do with every other NYI Picture of the Month we start our analysis at Square One.: reviewing the three NYI Guidelines which are the need for strong subject matter, then focusing attention on the subject, and finally simplifying the photography through the elimination of unnecessary items and retention of the needed ones.

First things first ñ the strong subject matter, the professional trainman at work. Judging from his outfit I'd say he's probably a conductor. Probably more work to do on a passenger train than on a freight train, perhaps giving him more time for day dreaming in the latter case. There's no one to talk to, no one to ask his opinions, not much communication with the outside world. Nor is there much change in the daily routine nor in the scenery. And yet there may be time for contemplation, even meditation, and that's not a bad thing, either. The hustle and bustle and hurly-burly of the workday world aren't always the best of all possible worlds.

Heather Pierce gave us the subject, but how did she focus attention on it? She used, among other things, framing. The structure of the caboose's doorway beautifully frames the conductor. She placed most of the man's body above and below the center of the picture, thus utilizing the Rule of Thirds.

Heather also used leading lines (converging lines) from the caboose interior to the man and then the tracks outside the caboose leading toward the evergreen trees in the background. Finally, she used high contrast tonality, large dark areas juxtaposed with the light gray snowy background.

She simplified the picture (third NYI Guideline) by relying heavily on silhouetted and semi-silhouetted forms to emphasize the isolation of the trainman's often lonely life.

Would he change his life? Probably not. For he is mindful of the haunting poignant lyrics of that old railroad ballad:

"Hear the mighty rush of the engine,
Hear the lonesome whistle's call,
No changes can be taken on the Wabash Cannonball".


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