Introducing our new project – “Trains and Modern Photography”

For more than a hundred years trains and railroads have provided an interesting subject matter for photographers. In the earliest years cameras were clunky and few, often in the hands of a professional. As the years went by, especially after the introduction of photographic film, cameras found their way into a railfan’s arsenal in increasing number. We’ve come a long way since then. The modern world has technology abound, and a camera is now found in just about everyone’s pocket, thanks to cell phones. For those serious about photography, technology has opened so many doors, and has made the art of railroad photography even more interesting. While many of the underlying principles have always remained the same, images that could never be captured before are now possible. Railfanning via a camera mounted on a flying drone would likely have been beyond the wildest dreams of early photographers, yet it is one way that people are capturing images of trains today.

A very early railroad photo
A daguerrotype considered one of the earliest known railroad photographs, circa 1850. Via the Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

I consider my upbringing to be on the very bridge of old-school photography and the “modern” technology world. I grew up shooting film, and in art school was expected to develop my own negatives and prints (admittedly, I hated it). Likewise, I remember getting my hands on my very first digital camera as a freshman in high school – it was a clunky beast, taking a 3.5″ floppy disk to save just a few photos. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got my very own digital camera (a simple point-and-shoot), and I didn’t get a digital DSLR until after I had graduated. I never fully enjoyed photography much until I had gone full digital, and since then I’ve attempted to embrace all the newest tech that I can get my hands on.

Grand Central Construction
Image from a glass plate negative of Grand Central Terminal’s construction. From the Library of Congress.

Because of my love of photographic technology, and a suggestion by a reader, I’m going to be starting a new feature project on this blog – namely a column entitled “Trains and Modern Photography.” The column will feature both modern photographic technology, like the aforementioned drones, to GoPros, as well as modern techniques, like panoramic, high dynamic range, and timelapses – all from the perspective of a railfan. Though it will be of most interest to the photographer, I hope that everyone will be able to enjoy it, essentially seeing the “behind the scenes” of how great photos are made.

Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal
Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal

So that is about it for this introduction… look for the first “Trains and Modern Photography” post tomorrow, represented by a light green dot, which you’ll see now added to the category list on the right bar of the site. If you happen to have any suggestions or ideas of technology or topics we should cover, shoot me a message or just comment below!

Read More

Taking the Grand Tour: A Review of Grand Central’s New Audio Tour

Observant commuters may have noticed something new in Grand Central in November – a little booth by the ticket windows labeled Audio Tours. Or you might have seen it mentioned in the Mileposts, or perhaps in a poster on your train or at your station? Either way there is a new way to tour Grand Central – and I’m not talking about a giant tour group where you have to strain to hear the tour guide. Grand Central now has an official self-guided audio tour. While I was at Grand Central the other day I took the time to give the tour a shot – a review of sorts.

 
Audio tour booth, Metro North employee Patrick mans the booth during my visit

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I know a lot about Grand Central, and I figured that I wouldn’t learn anything new. But I was a tad curious to know what would be included in a tour of Grand Central, and how it would be described. There are a lot of things I know about the history of the place. And I am also aware that there are folks in the hardcore railfan community that are of the opinion that there have been some… shall we say, anecdotal embellishments added into the lore of the Terminal. But there is just so much that can be said about the history of this building, what exactly do you say to fit into an hour, and what parts do you leave out?


Handheld device for the audio tour

I must admit though, I enjoyed the tour. The technology used is great. If you don’t want to borrow the device and headset for the tour you can download it to your own mp3 player – or at least you’re supposed to. I’ve been unable to purchase it on the website, not to mention it lists the prices only in Euros, which irrelevant if the company that made the tour may be foreign, it just looks poor in a US market. The actual devices that you can borrow for the tour are not only audio devices, they have a small screen in which to show a photo of where you currently are on the tour. I love the fact that it really is a self guided tour – you enter the number of the location you currently are in to hear about it. If you don’t want to hear about it, you can always skip that location. Or you can go in whichever order you please. Plus if you want to learn more about something, you can hit the green button. You can customize the whole thing and do whatever you want to.

Plenty of important places are described on the tour – from the obvious 42nd Street façade, to the clock and sky ceiling to the somewhat lesser known whispering gallery, spiral staircase in the information booth, and the walkways in between the glass panels. I loved that there were mentions of the 20th Century Limited, as well as Jackie Kennedy and the fight to save Grand Central. There were also plenty of things that I thought the tour could mention, but didn’t. Since the tour sends you outside anyways to see the façade, why not make another outdoor stop to see the majestic eagle – older than the Terminal itself – which once stood on the original Grand Central Depot? I also don’t recall hearing anything about William Wilgus. Wilgus was the railroad’s chief engineer, and the conceptual mastermind behind Grand Central. The tour briefly mentions that the Terminal ushered in the era of electric trains, but fails to mention why – and this is important! Would the railroad have undertaken such a massive project if steam locomotives were not banned on Manhattan island? Would the massively expensive project have been considered if not for Wilgus’ concept of air rights, of covering over the formerly open-cut railroad tunnels and building on it to recoup expenses and make money?

The tour does fall more on the side of artistic/architectural than railfan. But just the fact that the purpose of the building is for servicing rail, I think more of that rail history ought to be thrown in. What makes Grand Central a great railroad station, and not just a pretty building? (and I am talking more about dual levels and loop tracks, as opposed to ramps, which were mentioned)

 
Eagle originally from Grand Central Depot

For the most part the main narration of the tour was great. It was informal, like you were listening to an actual tour guide as opposed to reading one of the many books on the subject of Grand Cental. There were amusing little anecdotes thrown in, like the person asking the person at the information booth where to rent a horse. A lot of the extra details and stories on the “secrets” were recited by Dan Brucker… and I mean no insult to Dan, but there were times where it was tiresome to listen to his voice. He spoke loud and slow, perhaps as one would speak to a non-english speaker, hoping that over-enunciating words will help them understand. “This. Is. Not. A. STA-TION. It. Is. A. TER-MI-NAL. Be-cause trains. TER-MI-NATE. Here.” Now although I’ve never formally met Dan Brucker, I’ve overheard him doing tours. He is animated and it is obvious that he loves this place. But I don’t think that gets through in the tour. (Sorry Dan, please don’t be insulted, I’d still love for you to give me a tour any day!)

One option on the tour, which I believe was called Visual Experience has not been completed yet. The device mentioned that it is being worked on and will include clips from shows filmed in Grand Central. I hope they’re talking about audio clips and not video clips, because even though the device has the capacity for video the screen is so small. And if I had a hard time seeing what was in the tiny picture, then I am certain the little old ladies that took the tour right before me would have a major difficulty. Something on the other hand that might actually work would be a small companion brochure or booklet that accompanies the tour. Right now you just get a big clunky sheet of laminated paper with a map, which you can’t keep. I’m sure tourists would love something that can actually be kept. If cost is a prohibitive issue I’m sure an extra dollar or two could be charged for the nicer booklet.

Well, this certainly turned out to be the long-winded review. Basically it comes down to this:
Do I recommend the tour? Yes. The tour is ideal for people that enjoy the architecture and might not know a lot about Grand Central. If you know a lot about the place you’re probably not going to get as much out of it, but you’ll still probably enjoy it.
Did I learn anything on the tour? Yes. Somehow I had never even noticed the mural on the ceiling of the Graybar Passage.

Read More

New York & Harlem Railroad’s Pigeon-handling strategies

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve become pretty engrossed in this whole researching and finding old railroad related stuff. I’ve apparently been referred to as a “closeted railfan” (and the “mascot of the Harlem Line”, but that is a different story). Honestly I have never thought of myself as a railfan. Railfans seem to have all this information tucked away in their brains about types of trains and how they function, and could probably tell you the model of whatever locomotive they’re looking at and a good portion of information about it too. I don’t know much about trains other than what I’ve visually observed. In fact sometimes I am a bit shy to post some of my train photography online, because all the railfans always identify their pictures with all that info they know. I am just sort of like, here is a picture. It is a train. The train says Metro-North on it, and I saw it at White Plains station. And thus ends my description of said train. I will admit that I like riding on trains, though I think for the most part it is more that I like watching people on trains. Or getting to know people on trains. I’ve met a lot of nice people on trains. And a lot of crazy ones too. But if you’ve been here before, you don’t need me to tell you that.

However, all this digging in the history books I’m doing may be enough to warrant the title of “railfan”. I assure you, I was not this way before I started writing this blog (nor did I take anything I said seriously at that point, but that too is another story). So I suppose this is my confession to the world. This is me coming out of the closet, if you will. I guess… well… I guess I am a railfan. Okay, I said it.

One thing that I did feel like sharing though, were some interesting postcard images that I encountered in my research. It is interesting to note that pigeons are such a nuisance today, and they certainly were a nuisance back in the late 1800’s for the New York and Harlem Railroad. Some things never change. Here is a postcard from Copake, which back in the day was part of the “Upper Harlem Line”. The Harlem Line no longer extends that far up.


I imagine the photographer there was attempting to get a picture of the station, when all of a sudden that one pigeon jumped up in the foreground. I do believe that is a historic example of what is known today as a photobomb.

One of the things you may not have known, however, is that when it started, the New York and Harlem Railroad operated streetcars in Manhattan. And some of these were in fact pulled by horses. A failed, not often talked about, alternate method was also tried, using specially-bred larger pigeons (of which were plentiful in the city). Here is a never before seen photograph of prototype streetcar #00, being pulled by one of the aforementioned large pigeons.

Pigeon-cars, as they were called never really seemed to “take off” in the city. I think the whole oversized bird thing turned off quite a few people. Plus the temperament of horses was a bit better than the birds. The pigeons’ downfall was an early outbreak of the Avian Flu, which led the city into a complete panic, and many helpless pigeons were “purged” for the sake of humanity. The year after an early version of the Swine Flu struck, leading New Yorkers to endeavor to purge another species, but the pigeons never came back into favor. It does seem that the larger variety of pigeon was driven to extinction, as we are familiar today only with their smaller brethren.

Well, I suppose that is it for today’s history lesson. It is at this time I must admit to you all that back in the day when I was a struggling graphic designer, I always figured that if I failed at design, I could always work in the photography department at the Weekly World News. I was quite heartbroken when they ceased print production in 2007, which led me to seek out “a regular job”.

Read More