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Edition #179  August 1, 2012

Serendipity and Perception

Photographer: Janusz Mrozek

                                                                      Photo by Janusz Mrozek

Serendipity and Perception

This is the story of a shot, of how it came to be, although almost not seeing the light of day. A story in two dimensions, the great fortune in having circumstances, including bum luck, come together, and the difficulties of perception and how ones view of a shot can change over time.

The tale begins on a Carl Franz photo charter at the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad featuring WMSR 2-8-0 #734.  One of the stops is at a location called Lap.  I had not done this charter before, so at each location I first shoot a standard shot and then look around for a different shot on subsequent passes of the train.  Here, I take a basic profile shot and think about what to do.  The scene is unremarkable so I decide on a rail-head nose shot, on a curve.  I move into position near the track, mount a telephoto zoom, and get into a crouch, choosing to shoot without a tripod.

As the train chugs up the hill I take my nose shots and then turn to watch as the train passes, remaining in the crouch.  As I always do, I take some grab shots of the departing train.  (So many such shots, unplanned, end up disappearing under the Delete key!)  Conductor Richard Markle is standing on the rear platform of the caboose, looking at his watch.  I hear a voice nearby say "that's the shot, right there."  That is the last pass for Lap, so the train backs down the hill, the photographers board, and we move on to the next spot.  Just another stop during a long day.

At home over the next few days I go through my shots. Lots of cool stuff!  I had a nice day and got some nice shots.  But this one does not catch my eye.  I think I don't care much for all the steam all over the place, down low near the ground (the 734 has steam coming out of the stoker).  Perhaps I take a narrow view of the movement within the frame, failing to fully appreciate the action in a going-away shot.  Perhaps the contrast between dark subject and bright background just doesn’t appeal at that time, maybe it seems too dark.  Or perhaps the shot simply needed some post-processing to bring out its value, and I just did not see the potential.  That is perhaps the biggest barrier – seeing not just the shot out of the camera, but the shot it can become, whether accomplished with cropping or contrast or color balance or any number of other procedures.  For whatever reason, it doesn't matter now, I pass on the shot.  Of course, I don't delete it. It stays on the hard drive.

Some months later I see a shot online of a crewman boarding a caboose wearing a ball cap.  I think to myself "I recognize that cap"! I've seen that person! I decide to show my shot to the group, sort of a "me too" reaction.  Others chime in and say "nice, you should share that one!"  And so I do and it turns out to be very well liked.  Completely unexpected; I had no idea that it was a shot others would find of interest.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.

So think about all the occurrences that together combined to make this unplanned grab shot work out!  The operation of the photo charter itself.  My decision to pick a trackside shot rather than a profile scene, and my further decision to do a rail-level shot. My spinning around and staying low for the going-away unplanned grab shot.  The light being perfect at that time of that particular day for putting the caboose in shadow but lighting up the distant engine.  The steam coming out at ground level, blurring detail in the background and placing more emphasis on the caboose. The branches happening to be there to provide framing.  Mr. Markle happening to be present on the rear of the caboose, and in a classic railroading stance, checking the time. Every part of the story contributing its part.  Serendipity.

And think of the different views one can form regarding an image, and how one’s impression can change upon revisiting an image. Is the focal point created by light or by its absence?  When is light harsh versus having interesting contrast?  When are colors interestingly muted, perhaps pastel-like, versus dull and lifeless? Beyond the technical details, what of the content, whose impact varies with one’s knowledge, the background one brings to the image, rather than absorbing from it.  Becoming aware that the subject is not just a trainman but a particular individual, recently deceased after a lifetime of railroading.  Evolving from that to see the caboose as a symbol of train operations of yore, perhaps also of the trainsets of youth, rather than just a miscellaneous railcar. Steam and smoke, not just as industrial detritus but as indicators of culture, of society’s processes. Perception.

Finally, what of Mr. Markle? Well, he passed away that following winter.  I never said hello to him, never spoke to him.  But I quickly found out that lots of people knew him, remember him well, have a great deal of respect and even fondness for him.  A special person.  I didn't end up getting to interact with him, my loss, but I am pleased to have preserved his image for so many others.

Janusz Mrozek

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