Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Crisanti and the Distant Train

In the last year or so I have been enjoying the work of John Crisanti, a Colorado-based photographer with an interesting approach to his area (flickr photography website here, RP images here). While he makes many types of appealing images, I want to focus on a frequent choice, that of the distant train in the bigger scene, often with big land and big sky, a style that I as an easterner (USA) find inherently western. John is particularly adept at capturing scenes with the train at a distance yet not leaving the viewer wishing the train were closer and bigger. [As always, for all images click on the thumbnail for a larger view.]

Before getting to the big vista shots, however, we will start with a different type of "distant" shot, what I will call the local distant shot, one that captures a smaller scene. John sets the train in the background, in this case between two trees, yet its presence is quite strong.

Obviously this shot isn't as "local", the train sneaks into the scene a bit. Notice also the "look" of this shot, sightly more contrast than one might typically apply. John processes many of his less than full daylight shots in this way (Travis Dewitz does this also), and I find the effect quite appealing. With this in mind, go back and take another look at the first shot.

This shot makes good use of the lack of light, or better said, it creates its contrasts in tone despite the lack of light (thanks, snow!) and through the additional depth created by fog in the background contrasting with the clearer foreground.

This image is an in-between image, as the scene is local but clearly the location has a vista and the train is itself at quite a distance. The tight crop, compared to the images below, results in a hint of space - obviously this is a view from well up high but the bigger scene is not present. I like the way the train peeks in between the trees - this semi-hidden or distant view is characteristic of many of John's images.

The next images are those featuring big scenes, taking advantage of John's location in the Rocky Mountains. Here, the train in the background is only a bit more than a row of trees on the horizon, just enough color and detail to show it is instead a tree. The overall scene is quite pleasant and the brown of the road goes nicely with the muted dark greens of the trees and the blue in the sky. A bit of extra contrast and a notch off the brightness gives the scene a different feel than a more conventional processing.

What a scenic beauty! The train no more than a line, even the headlight a barely visible spot. The scene is nicely composed with the dominant diagonal line, the curves of the line to the left, and the clouds up top with the presence of the complementary orange color.

Here again, the train blends in, just another stretch of darker gray within the scene. The scene is composed nicely, with the line defining the slope of the ridge contrasting nicely to the opposing angles of the lines in the valley, including the train. The contrast is boosted a bit, as one often does for B/W images, and the brightness is muted.

Finally, this beauty of Moffat Tunnel is a "three points of light shot" with the train barely evident, visible primarily because of the headlights on the lead engine. The mountains are majestic, but more so the light is beautifully placed, on the train and the valley by the portal, and then again in the sky and mountains upper left. The darkness elsewhere emphasizes, by contrast, the depts and elevations in the area. This shot beautifully shows why tunnels are needed.

So we have gone through a bit of a tour of John's images, from smaller to larger in the scope of the scene. John's extra touch of contrast makes his work yet more appealing. Great stuff!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Welcome to RailPixCritic!

To those who have just seen my piece in the April 2013 issue of Trains magazine, welcome! This blog is a formerly lapsed, now restarting series of commentaries on rail-related images. In its current and rejuvenated manifestation, you will primarily see two types of posts. One will be an appreciation of a particular photographer's work. For an example of that, see the immediately next post, featuring the photography of Travis Dewitz. The other will be a discussion of some aspect of rail imagery. As my interests lean toward composition, I will primarily do comparisons and contrasts of images where a particular compositional issue is of interest. Examples of that are the subsequent two posts.

For a lengthier overview of what I am trying to do here, see my very first post from years ago, here, and my first substantive post here.

Please note that I had anticipated spending a day or two buffing up the content, in particular reestablishing expired links to material. That will happen soon. In other instances, such as the Keith Burgess post a little further below, the thumbnails no longer work for reasons not apparent to me, but you can click on the boxes to see the images in their original location. Alas, that won't be true of all posts, until I track down the photographers and find out where there images are. Incidentally, all images are used here with permission.

New material coming out soon, as I am finishing a half-year intensive work project and am renewing my interest in this blog. If you have any comments, please include them in the comment section, and feel free to email me: jrm underscore rr, my id for yahoo email, with comments or suggested topics, and especially images or web pages worthy of my consideration. I especially seek out images which fall in an "artsy" category; those seem to be hard to find.

As this is a rush intro - I will polish it down the road, or not, maybe I'll put my energies solely into my next post - I show you merely an image of no particular quality, one of my own, just to add some color and life to this particular post. I much prefer to write about images created by others. I critique better than I shoot, at least I hope you come to that conclusion.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Travis Dewitz: Random 25

Some time ago while surfing around the web I had occasion to pop into Travis Dewitz' website (general photography website here, railroad specific website here, alternative railroad view here). I no longer recall why, but I was at the site for a particular image and I decided to poke around and see his other shots. I was impressed! What a series of excellent shots! Consider these samples from the 25 shots numbers 1126-1150 at this link, you may need to click to get to a previous or subsequent section of the sequence.

This shot is a wedgie zoom pan, nicely done, rich purple skies complementing the dark yellows further down. I like the blur in the sky, with the clouds particularly dynamic, and the train sort of zooms out of background. Nice action shot with interesting color.

Here we see a traveler of some sort crossing the tracks. I like how the light appears on both sides of the person, headlights on the right, headlight reflections on the left. The person's gaze is angled a bit some so one can see a bit of his face. Shallow depth of field and black/white treatment complete the work (and the bit of flare does not bother me). An interesting moment in the night time.

I love the idea behind this shot, as I see it, to emphasize the height of the bridge by capturing only part of the legs, and by showing an entire tree comfortably ensconced underneath. The train completes the scene, filling a bit of a hole in the middle, but for me it remains about the bridge and its context, which at this time just happens to include a train.

I am a big fan of town and train scenes, and this night version is a real beauty. The town is present as much in street and window lights as it is in buildings The train provides obvious interest (and its headlights create a nice code line pole silhouette, and reveal roadbed detail) but the structure is equally interesting. A small bar, open late, with one patron? What is that purple light shining out of its window? (The purple nicely contrasts with the overall mustard hue) A tree breaks up the horizon, itself silhouetted by an extra glow in the sky. (I might prefer cropping a bit off the right, but losing some lights in the background reduces the town feel.)

Of course, Travis can capture a traditional scene also, witness this bridge shot, framed in a classic manner with branches, and nicely capturing snow blowing off the bridge as the train passes.

Catching a snow plow snow blast at night had never occurred to me until I saw these two shots. Instead of the scene being too dark to catch the dynamism of the snow movement, it turns out that light sources shining through the snow from the back create a fascinating glow, and the lack of visible detail leads to greater abstraction. In the first show, the glow is great, the grabirons from the engine provide just enough presence (along with the ditch lights) to explain the scene, the car and structure (a sign?) establish the location, and the streaks of light along with the clumps of snow convey the energy and the motion.

The second shot tells its story through more complete abstraction. Capturing the snow being pushed over the grade crossing signal adds bold color; the crossbucks are barely visible above. The engine is essentially not visible, despite the bit of nose, and the white lights contrast with the red. The snow flies, there are few lines if any, everything has a soft feel. A real beauty of abstraction, a study of color and light.

Finally, a shot of the station at Red Wing, MN. A nice compositional choice to put the train in the background to feature the station more. Not ideal, in terms of edge distractions, and I think the placement of the light pole, but an interesting shot.

Now, I suspect that if one were to pick some other 25, one might not get quite the same number of special shots. So one might say I am cherry picking. But, in actuality I am not, I really did stumble into this set at random, and furthermore, while some other set of 25 consecutive shots loaded up by Travis might be a bit lower in quality on average, there will still be plenty of quality shots. Also, the shots I am featuring here do contain a strong share of night or approaching night shots, but other samples will feature other light conditions. Travis certainly has many excellent daytime shots, and I know him first for his "open spaces" shots from the west, including the PRB, with dramatic clouds. At any rate, Travis does outstanding work.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Telling the Story: Tension

[This is a guest blog by Mike H. (RP images here, SmugMug here), taken with permission from a forum thread; I have added a few thoughts at the end. If anyone else wants to take a shot at writing down some thoughts, please let me know.]

The question is when is it OK to make the train the main focus and when is it ok to have more human interest? Well, I would suppose it depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell.

This one (by Ben Sutton, other shots here) fits together as a harmonious whole. The person is in shadow, and is obviously a supporting element. His gaze is directed at the train; so is ours. The train is well-lit, framed by the trees, and is therefore the main subject. This is a very soothing, peaceful photo to view.

In this one (also by Ben Sutton), there is tension between the person, the train, the magazine, the bright yellow fire hydrant, and the leading lines of the street with the many angular overpasses receding into the distance. We look at the train and the person, but the person's attention is not on the train or us, but the magazine, which itself is about trains. This isn't a "relaxing" composition, because the viewer is left wondering what is the "story". It is "strange". I like it anyway because of that tension and "strangeness".

Here, I was trying to show the train as part of the scenery. The kids and coaches are here to play football, not watch trains. The train noise nearly drowns out conversation, but the team ignores the intrusion. The focus is on the people; the train passes through, and the game goes on.

Not mine (by Andre Beverly, other shots here), but I love this shot. The girl stands mere feet away from the onrushing transit train, but is completely oblivious. We can imagine the noise and rush of air as the train enters the station, but she might as well be a statue. The viewer wants to look at the massive object in motion, but instead we are drawn to her handheld device. Who is she texting? What message is so important that she shuts out all her surroundings, including us?

What are you trying to say with your photos? Everything else should follow from that.

PS by Janusz: When I first viewed Ben's second shot above (which started the forum discussion) I felt it looked contrived and so I didn't really like it despite its obvious good qualities. Over time, however, I have come to like it more. Sure it is posed but there are lots of photographs that are and I am not interested so much in realism and the more I look the less it seems artificial. The shot is interesting, is well composed, and has nice color. I am not so negative on the cut off engine, although it would have been interesting to see what the shot looked like with more width. My only issue with the shot is the Railpace - it isn't obviously a train magazine but upon close inspection it is and it is a detail that doesn't really fit for me. (Well, add a second issue: not a fan of the contrast, I would adjust the midtones and shift the peak of the histogram left a bit, get rid of some of the HDR-ish feel.)

The shot definitely has a "story" in that it has tension in the composition, whether true to life or artificial does not matter to me if it fits together. One looks at the shot and wonders, just what is so interesting about that magazine that the train goes by unnoticed? A well-staged work, staged not so much for realism as for interest, and that it captures and rewards.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blur and Abstraction

Consider this image by Mitch Goldman, heavy on distortion/ blur (you will want to click through to see the blur at full size, it doesn't make sense in the thumbnail view). First, is it photography? Of course, but is it rail photography? It isn't representational photography, for the most part, and it doesn't really try to convey anything in particular about railroading. But as an abstract, and one that abstracts not through cropping or careful composition but through what I will call an artistic effect, it might have merit.

Thus, one might consider this image more in the realm of certain types of painting than in photography. Of course, photography has always pursued such types of abstractions, but in doing so, is this image still a rail image? Is it an interesting abstraction of railroading and of a particular event, or is the abstraction disconnected from the subject, call it a random interpretation?

My first impression of this shot was rather positive. Heat distortion is always attractive, and by presenting overall blur with sufficient definition of subject this image offered a consideration of what is the essence of a rail setting. But ultimately the image shrunk on me (or whatever the antonym of "grew" is). For one, I found the elements unnecessarily muddled. The endless blurred posts are heavy handed. They are bright and take the eye away from

the more important parts of the image. It isn't so evident what they support (signal bridge? pedestrian overpass?), in that the top is cropped too tight for my tastes, I want to see a clear bar across and not something merged into the upper margin. The bright rectangles behind the posts on the left are bad in this regard also.

The image does have an interesting deliniation between top and bottom, the top having all the verticals and the bottom having diagonals, with the action at the line - nicely done! But the bottom is rather dull, especially in color, all brown, and the ballast lacks in interesting contrast, it is a muddle. Perhaps I just find it washed out and ugly.

The point of interest, the train and person, is problematic also. The pilot of the train looks weird, too tall, something going on under the coupler I don't understand, and there is this large black area behind the person that at first I thought might be a dog but then realized was the shadow of the train. And there is this weird orange-y area on the left, below the posts.

The issue for an abstraction, I conjecture, is whether the abstraction offers a good balance between taking one away from the object captured but also maintaining identification of what that object is or was. This image suffers from both, I think, odd as that seems. The individual elements are identifiable (especially to a railfan), catenary posts, many rails, engine, etc. There is a line between interpretation and blur, and this one falls into the blur zone, I think because there is sufficient detail remaining, and that detail is sufficiently distracting (posts! orange! rails!) to suppress whatever mood or pattern the abstraction would otherwise convey. And at the same time, perhaps because one expects certain things at trackside, the distraction gets confusing. What is that behind the posts on the left? What is that orange zone? Some details are abstracted (ok, blurred :) ) to the point they cannot be identified, but others are not, and this is a problem here.

Put differently, what is the subject? I find that abstract works often put a focus either on one important element, or they put the focus on no subject, instead being primarily works that consider pattern, or texture, or other dimension. Here, there is a clear subject, there is an interesting event, a trespass, with the train bearing down. But, the blur confuses rather than focuses, it takes away attention from the action but does not replace it with something else for the viewer's attention, merely distraction. The eye recognizes the event and one wants to know more (does the person have a face of fear or of distraction?). But there is no more here, it is eliminated and replaced with other stuff. The balance between identification and abstraction does not fit the subject.

So, I am no longer a fan of the image. But this is inappropriate as a full consideration of the image. The additional question is where do we/Mitch go from here? Can one do full-blur rail photography in an effective manner? I don't know, but here are some dimensions I would consider. First, what spot make for a good subject for a blur? The poles here are awful, in my view, unless they become a focal point. At least in this take they are too strong as a secondary element. How much detail at trackside is too much for this level of blur? Are there other magnitudes of blur that work better, and does that vary by location? I would look first to locations with less detail.

Second, what is the blur, the art, trying to do? Is the focus going to be on color? On patterns? What are the elements that remain after distortion/blur that capture a viewer's interest? I suspect those will have to do with interesting color variation along with a simpler division of the image area, simpler forms that hold up well to blurring.

Just some thoughts. (BTW, I presume I took this waaay more seriously than Mitch did. I just find it worth pondering.) I view this as an interesting first attempt. We will see if Mitch or anyone else pursues this and finds images of greater artistic merit. Nice try!

PS: I encourage you to read the comment from Mitch regarding what he intended, what he did, and why he likes the result.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Keith Burgess: Mood and Texture

With the annual CRPA conference coming up this weekend, I've decided to resume this blog with an appreciation of the work of two-time CRPA contest winner Keith Burgess. His work can be found here and here. His CRPA winning shots are here (2007) and here (2009).

Keith has an extensive body of work so I could pick out all sorts of themes; I'm going with a few shots that combine aspects of texture and mood. Texture, taken literally, conveys a tactile impression visually: soft, rough, slippery. I view it as more than that, as a way to emphasize part of the character of location. Texture itself also contributes to mood, just as light does, so photographs that emphasize both dimensions are particularly powerful.

The first image brings out the dryness of the high desert with a large patch of close-up rock in the foreground and general high contrast due to the mid-day sun. The textures of the arching rock on the left and the distant rock wall add to the roughness of the image, contracting with the curve of the arch. Desolate yet beautiful!

In the second image the use of texture is more straight-forward and at the same time more unusual. The shimmer and granularity of the water contrasts with the diffuse, soft slopes and the smoke off the engines, giving a counterpoint to the presence of the train. Beautiful terrain but it doesn't look like a great time to be there, the mood is somber, yet with signs of life from train and sparkling water. By no means a striking image but worthy of contemplation.

The third image is a classic B/W with low light creating strong shadows on the ground, highlighting the dirt, stones, debris, and rails of the yard, contrasting with the diffuse shapes and tonal variations in the steam and the rigid geometry of the wall and doors on the right. The presence of the shovel mechanism conveys a sense of abandonment or waste, or at least better days, even though the facility looks to be active and well kept. I'm a fan of the emphasis through contrasts and shadows on the rough ground textures.

As usual the last image is my favorite of the set. The variety of textures! Snow blowing in the air, seen as distinct streaks of snow, and also as snow dust kicked up by the train; the ripples in the water; the fine lines of the tree branches; the ballast and ties. The backlight and the snow reduce the extent of color, and the yellow engine noses is soft rather than bright, subtle. The backlight also makes the blown snow streaks visible and creates a quiet mood.

These shots are not necessarily representative of Keith's work; none are strong in color or bold in composition. The effects are quieter but the photography is no less excellent. Well done; I'll have to revisit the collection some day, perhaps the night CPL shots or his other work.

Until then, consider what I have written as you contemplate this shot. It's like a homework assignment! :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Upcoming Rail Photography Contests

I was unaware that Railfan & Railroad magazine has a contest. Unfortunately entry deadline is extremely soon, last day of September or first day of October, something like that. $200 first prize; don't recall the theme, if any. Sorry for not having more info; I couldn't find any info online. Now I know to look for it next year.

Trains magazine also has a contest (link here, big file, 3.6MB), first prize is a Canon 50D! The theme: "Bridging the Gap." Deadline October 31; for details follow the link.

Finally, the Center for Rail Photography and Art is doing their annual contest again. This year's theme is "Beyond the Locomotive" with the added explanation that "This year’s theme challenges the photographer to understate (or even eliminate) the locomotive in the photograph and emphasize other aspects of the railroad environment." First prize is also a Canon 50D! Deadline December 31; modest entry fee of $10 for non-members of the Center. Link here.

Good luck, everyone!

PS: I forgot all about Day In North America, a competition/compilation where everyone submits their shots taken on one day; the selected shots appear in an issue of Railroads Illustrated. That day was October 3, 2009, so it is too late to make a plan, but if you took a nice shot that day, the information for submission can be found here.