Camera Bag: When the World was Black & White

August 1997By Jim Boyd

It’s interesting how the railfan mind works. Some things we accept and some we reject. It’s conditioning and tradition. We know, of course, that back before World War II everything was black & white. We have lots of proof: Matthew Brady and Fred Jukes captured early railroading in all of its monochrome splendor with sparkling highlights, wonderful mid-tones and rich blacks. Lucius Beebe and Phil Hastings and Dick Steinheimer and hundreds of others perfected the art of capturing of the black & white world.

Of course paintbrush artists had imagined the world in color for centuries, but the end result was inconsistent and not permanent. Color was only a pigment — make that “figment” — of their imagination. Photography proved the real world was actually black & white.

Agfachrome tried to put it in color, but it didn’t work — just look at the evidence today. The world just turned red and bleached out. Ektachrome wasn’t much better. Living back then must have been awful. It was Kodachrome that put the world into color wherever it looked. That evidence is still with us. Southern Ps4s in Virginia Green… Burlington 05s with graphite smokeboxes and blazing red cab roofs… Daylights in the hues of California sunshine. Of course, there were the hold-outs, like Illinois Central Mountains with only the slightest concession of rusty boxcar red cab roofs or Norfolk & Western Mallets in unrelieved grimy black. The newfangled streamliners gloried in the newfound color, though. Seaboard citrus… Santa Fe warbonnets… Even New Haven green and gold. The world was coming alive with color — the Baby Boomer generation can hardly remember the black & white world.

And now that the whole world is in color, those black & white images have become an outdated novelty. There are few practitioners of black & white photography anymore, and most of them do it for nostalgic sport while shooting color in their real cameras. As their darkrooms burn down one by one or the jugs of developer turn brown from disuse, the art of black & white printing will become lost. (I think it’s all faked with Adobe Photo Shop in a computer, anyhow.)

Railfans will accept certain subjects in black & white and insist on color for others, particularly in books. Everybody knows that since Don Ball invented the all-color train book in 1978 with America’s Colorful Railroads, the art of computerized scanners has made possible the economic publication of all those color slides that used to hide in Carousel trays in dark closets while Johnny Krause and his buddies cranked out black & white books by the hundreds. (Relax Harold and Victor, I remember your all-color world steam book, but that wasn’t the one that got everybody digging their Logan boxes out of the closets.)

Nowadays all-color books are the industry norm for pictorials ranging from magnificent “works of a lifetime” like John Garden’s British Columbia Railway to crank-’em-out raw data softcovers on everything to and including CF7s. Bob Yanosey of Morning Sun Books has even exceeded the once-derisive description of his hardcover “book-of-the-month club” by upping his production to 14 books a year (all delivered “on time,” he’s proud to point out). With time being the inherent enemy of any emulsion except Kodachrome, the faster we can get those rapidly aging slides into permanent reference sources, the better. We can worry about the “art” aspect later. If everybody waited to do the “ultimate” book on a given subject, we’d have darned little reading or reference material.

We know that the steam/diesel transition era was also the black & white/color transition era. Back then some of the engines were in color while others were still black & white (sort of the tonal equivalent of Amtrak’s bizarre “rainbow era” of the early 1970s). And modern railfans will accept some of the subjects of that era in their true black & white while expecting full color from others. It shows up in book sales.

A few years ago one of the first practitioners of black & white diesel photography, J. Parker Lamb, authored a pictorial on his beloved Missouri-Kansas-Texas. There were the images we remember of E-units and FA’s in all their monochrome magnificence. Expertly composed and printed photos showed the world of the Katy exactly as we remembered it from his contributions to the Trains “Photo Section” of the early 1960s.

But the book went astray when Parker tried to bring us up to date with green-and-yellow zebra-striped SD40-2s in black & white — but everybody knows those engines were always in color! In spite of its quality content, the book sold to Katy fans but never really made its mark in the general market, much to the publisher’s dismay.

As a result, Parker’s next book, on vintage Dixie diesels, was cut adrift and sent looking for another publisher. I saw the raw material for that book in the form of boxes of 8x10s and was truly impressed with the content. Here were the last black & white subjects of that steam/diesel-black & white/color transition era. The magnificent L&N E6s that evaded the Kodachrome and remained black & white to the end. And Central of Georgia RS3s. And GM&O FA’s. Color would be a downright distraction for those classic Parker Lamb images. Fortunately, Tom Dixon’s TLC Publishing will have Parker’s Classic Diesels of the South in distribution very shortly (and at $26.95 for a 128-page hardcover, it’s about half the price of the standard “slide show” full color books).

Meanwhile, the world continues its quest for color, as we try to find all those hidden boxes of slides from the stalwart pioneers of Kodachrome 10 whose Argus C-3 “bricks” blasted their color all over the first generation Alcos, burbling Baldwins and wayward steam locomotives that happened to get in their way.

As for magazines and books, color will always be more expensive to reproduce than black & white — although the margin is rapidly narrowing, thanks to the computerized scanners and desktop publishing software — and total color is still a few years away for most periodicals. Meanwhile, the railfan market will seek out the color while accepting black & white for pure reference data. You don’t really need 100% color for a Conrail roster book as long as there are enough color pages to give you the idea of what “Big Blue” is all about — and when presenting the raw data in black & white will keep the cover price somewhere south of your monthly Lexus payment.

And as for freight and passenger equipment color guides — they’d be silly without the color. But pictorials of modern railroading will always sell better in color. Even the finest black & white photographer can’t match the impact of a full color grade crossing wedgie of a BNSF “rainbow warrior” (the new politically correct term for “pumpkins” or “Goat Boats”).

Like most of our railroad history, the black & white images can be savored like vintage wine, and the practitioners of the art — from Parker Lamb to Ted Benson to Jim Shaughnessy to Bob Collins — are to be eternally honored along with their predecessors who have gone beyond that monochrome sunset. They have experienced both worlds: the one of black & white and the one of color. It is a path that no member of the new generation will ever be able to take. Color won’t go away, and you simply can’t turn back the clock.

And haven’t we all discovered that at one time or another in our pursuit of the rail hobby?

August 1997This article appeared in the August 1997 issue of Railfan & Railroad. Subscribe today!

This article was posted on: August 1, 2019