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A Dozen Miles in a Decade

After shooting a number of night photos at Chester, Connecticut, of the Valley Railroad’s North Pole Express trains, it was time for a change. Instead of the usual setup of placing lights on the same side of the train as the camera, fully illuminating the subject, I put them on the opposite side of the train, and pointed them straight back at the camera. This completely backlit the locomotive, and really highlighted the plume as the train passed by.

A Dozen Miles in a Decade

By Tom Nanos/photos by the author

Connecticut’s Valley Railroad has been a part of my life since the mid-1970s when I took my first ride with my family. On that day, I also took my first railroad photograph, a 110 Instamatic photo of No. 97 being serviced along side the old coal silos located at the south end of Essex yard. I’ve ridden the line many times since then, and when my interest in photographing railroads ramped up in the early 21st century, I came back to my first love, the Valley Railroad.

The Valley Railroad is special to me because it’s something that does bring me back to my childhood, evoking memories like riding in the open car – a gondola with seats – along with my sister, parents and grandparents. And now that I have two daughters of my own, I get to create memories for them in the way my parents did with me – not only in riding the excursions as I did in the 1970s and 80s, but also photographing the railroad’s operations with my girls.

With relatively short line of only about 12 miles, one would think the pool of potential photo angles would be somewhat limited – and that statement would be correct. The key to not making the same photograph over and over, for me, is to get creative with the existing scenes, making new ones. One of the ways I’ve been doing that the past few years is to shoot the railroad running after dark. Being able to selectively light the passing trains is a way to create a new photograph from a well covered location. Sure, it’s a challenge to set up the lighting for the shot, but when the photo works out, it’s something quite unique.

Valley Railroad

While riding on the Santa Special with my wife and daughters during the 2013 Christmas season, I made my way to the rear platform of the train, joining conductor Brian Messinger, for the shove move from Chester to Deep River.

Another favorite method of mine to mix things up along the Valley Line is to concentrate on the railroad employees themselves as they work. Operating on a popular tourist line, the employees are usually very receptive to being photographed as they work, some even relish the time in front of the camera. And their love for what they do does tend to come across in the photos.

My overall aim for this exhibit is to show the beauty of the twelve miles of track the Valley Railroad operates. I’d also like to show my appreciation for one of the railroads that brings me back to my youth – depicting not only the trains that ply the rails between Saybrook and Haddam, but also some of the people who make these rides possible. A subset of photos will feature some of the folks who contributed to No. 3025’s rebuilding program, along with some of the VRR’s people who have passed on in recent years.

The exhibit will feature a number of photographs taken between 2003 and 2013, taken with both film and digital equipment in all conditions – day, night, sun, rain, snow and fog. My philosophy when it comes to photographing railroads is simple – since the trains run in virtually any weather, at any time of day or night, so do my cameras. The entire exhibit will consist of over 40 large format prints, matted and framed.

I am quite honored and humbled that the Oliver Jensen Gallery has decided to host my first solo photographic gallery exhibit. I hope you can make it down to Essex during the exhibit to view the Valley Railroad through my eyes.

“A Dozen Miles in a Decade” will be on display in the Oliver Jensen Gallery near the Valley Railroad’s station in Essex, Conn., from May 30 through October 26, 2014. For more information about Tom Nanos and his work, please visit his blog.

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This article was posted on: April 10, 2014