Jim Shaugnessy’s 60-Year Odyssey Photographing the Evolution of the North American Railroad

Jim Shaughnessy, “Central Vermont local freight switches cars in wintry scene, Bethel, Vermont” (1955) (source: the artist and Thames & Hudson)

Allison Meier at Hyperallergic:

“Always restless, even daring when he had to be, Shaughnessy worked hard to get in and around the railroad, in all conditions, in all settings,” writes Kevin P. Keefe, former editor-in-chief of Trains magazine, in a book essay. “If the life of a crossing watchman was important, then Shaughnessy shuddered through a subzero night until the perfect moment when his subject dashed back into the warmth of a shanty. If the guts of a steam locomotive were interesting, then he’d insert himself into the depths of roundhouses and sidle up next to the hostlers in order to record the oily intricacies of valve gear and side rods.”

Born in Troy, New York, in 1933, Shaughnessy published his first photograph in Trains in 1952. While the detailed captions in Essential Witness are those of a true rail enthusiast (the “Pennsylvania Railroad 11-class 2-10-0” is identified as chugging over an elevated bridge), his images have a broader appreciation for how people exist with the railroads in North America, and how these systems altered the landscape. The silhouette of a tunnel in Canaan, New York, in 1989 reveals its jagged edges, framing the train with this rock that was blasted through for progress. Sometimes the trains are tiny against the mountains or waterfalls, sometimes the focus is elsewhere, like a 1953 photograph that concentrates on the cows in a Vermont pasture, unperturbed by the freight train zooming behind.

Jim Shaughnessy, “Pennsylvania Railroad operator hoops up train orders to crew of a northbound coal train, Trout Run, Pennsylvania” (1956) (source: the artist and Thames & Hudson)

I love this photo. Train orders, are largely obsolete here in North America. But sometimes, it still happens. Traditionally orders get hooped to the conductor at the front, and the operator(s) at the caboose. Nowadays, operations are radioed or even downloaded.

Locomotive transport is and continues to be one of the most important means of transporting goods across land. It’s fun to look back and understand where we’ve come from, and to see where we’re headed.

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