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Edition #62, September 15, 2007
Photographer: Blair Kooistra
Photo by Blair Kooistra
Archaeologists and historians have long looked to old photographs to tell us about the past: how people lived; the work they did; the things they held important. But the interpretations can’t happen without the photograph being made in the first place. Many times, the photographs that eventually tend to be the most interesting didn’t start off that way. Often, they were “throwaway” frames taken by the photographer—even less than a snapshot . . . shots photographers might even deride as “wasting film.” We’ve all done it. A lull in the action. An itchy trigger figure. So the photo gets made of the humorous sign in front of a business (“Diesel Fried Chicken”), or a candid frame of your buddies cutting up on the overpass while waiting for the train.
Here’s one of my “throwaways.” For whatever reason, though, I kept it, and only with the passage of time has the photo taken on significance to me. I was out with Milwaukee Road dispatcher Don Lehr for a day of photography on Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State in 1979. As luck would have it, our one westbound train to photograph derailed, putting a kibosh on our plans. We headed to the depot at Cedar Falls where the head end of the train was waiting while decisions were made on what to do, the train’s head-end brakeman, George Katalanich, standing around on the platform. Don, of course, knew George from work; I’d bootlegged a ride with George on a freight from Beverly to Othello the week before, but our paths had crossed many times before during photo outings. Don and George exchanged “shop talk” for a few moments, and I asked George off-handedly to pose for a shot in front of his locomotives. He looped this thumbs around the straps of his overalls and let out a big laugh, and I took a couple of frames. I didn’t think much of the shot at the time—not being the “classic” portrait of a railroader I’d envisioned. The slide got filed away, where it sat in a Logan box for nearly 28 years.
I came across that slide the other day while scanning some photographs. Now that I’m now older than George was when I took the photo—when you edge into middle age you obsess about stuff like that-- I what his life has been like since the Milwaukee Road shut down in March 1980. Fellow co-workers say he’s still alive, living in Cle Elum and working some farmland he owns outside of town.
Nothing on that warm September 15th day in 1979 would suggest that three decades later, a historian could note that George’s brown Olympia Beer cap would pin the photo’s location to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest—Oly and Rainier being the big regional brands. And how about the polyester print shirt and those monster sideburns—they likely haven’t grown ‘em that big in Cle Elum since the late 1970s.
While I’m happy with the action shots I’d made, it’s these “throwaway” photographs like this that I enjoy seeing the most. But you couldn’t have told that to the teenager making the photo on the depot platform back then.
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