Bill Kratville captured this nighttime scene on the Union Pacific at Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the 1950s during the transition from steam to diesel locomotives as the industry modernized in the postwar era. Cate Kratville will speak about her father's work at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's 2013 "Conversations about Photography" hosted by Lake Forest College April 12-14. Photo courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
Meeting your colleagues and mentors
By Alexander B. Craghead
As a photographer, I find that influence is tricky, something that both openly challenges my perceptions and subtly shapes the images I make. Jeff Brouws, a board member at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, suggests that photographers "can be impacted by anything, whether it's advertising, billboards, signage, or other people's work." Everything around us visually impacts us, profoundly shapes how we see the world and, in turn, how we choose to depict it in our photography. "Think of how many images we see in a day," Jeff adds, "not even intentionally."
"Between Owenyo and Laws, June 1954" by Steve VanDenburgh, photographed along the old Southern Pacific narrow gauge line in eastern California. VanDenburgh will be presenting at this year's "Conversations about Photography." —Photo courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
This may be one of the reasons I began to collect photography books in a serious way about four years ago. I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, but I think I was looking for something, looking at what other photographers had made before me and trying to find, in their works, something that clarified my own approach to the field. If my everyday visual surroundings can impact my style, then choosing to study the photography of others meant being proactive and intentional about these influences. The books I collected—Walker Evans, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, David Plowden—have helped frame the way I think about photography. For others, it is the work of FSA photographers like Jack Delano, or the famous night work of O. Winston Link.
Choosing to be open to the influence of others is one of the more powerful things we can do as photographers. "I try to pull ideas and techniques from [other photographers]," says fellow railroad photographer Travis Dewitz, "which I blend with my own ideas and style. Studying others' work can help develop your own likes and dislikes, style, approach, and you can learn at a faster pace what works and what doesn't."
Brouws notes that books were his greatest gateway, too, but that today, the Internet enables photographers to learn more and more quickly. "Today a young photographer today can spend a few hours on the Internet and become pretty conversant [with]... photography." Yet there is a benefit to going beyond books or the Internet, to physical interaction with other photographers. Brouws notes that this is one of the reasons why the Center hosts its annual "Conversations on Photography" conference in the greater Chicago area each April. "I think that... for [any] conference... the thing is you come because you want your thinking about things disrupted, and I mean that in a positive way," he adds. "You want to be challenged, you want to immerse yourself in something that you may not have thought about."
Adds Dewitz, "Watching the presentations at CRPA and hearing the hows and whys about the photographers' choices in creating certain images in their presentation can really give you an insight into how they create their works of art and their approach to photography."
Through his work with the Farm Security Administration, photographer Jack Delano was able to capture striking color images such as this scene at Proviso Yard on the Chicago & North Western in January 1943. Pablo Delano will talk about his father's work at this year's "Conversations about Photography."
Such events also serve as ways to meet colleagues and mentors, and these meetings have lasting impacts. For me personally, the opportunity to meet David Plowden was immense. His retrospective book, Vanishing Point, left a lasting impression on me, and the opportunity to talk with him about his mentors, Minor White, Walker Evans, and Ansel Adams, made me feel somehow connected to something far larger than me.
"I have met many photographers and authors that have inspired me," adds Dewitz, echoing my own experiences. "Being in a room with some of the people you idolize will effect you positively even if you can't put your finger on what it is. To me it was even more of a mental push in the right direction, to take that next step and to push forward."
Of course not everyone can attend the Center's conference in Chicago, but there are still options. Book tours, presentations, gallery openings, campus events; the odds are high that there are opportunities near you that can have a lasting and positive effect on your photography. So don't stop buying books, and don't stop using the Internet to explore the works of others, but consider taking that last, personal step of interacting with the photographers who inspire you. It will change the way you look at the world, and the way you show it to others.
For more information about the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, their programs and conferences, please visit their web site at www.railphoto-art.org.