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Edition #30, May 15, 2006

When Every Shot Has To Count

Photographer: Martin Burwash

                                                            Photo © 2005 by Martin Burwash

When Every Shot Has To Count

Dynamic brakes whining, the cool mountain air in my face, the rush of the Foss River far below, I was down to photo “11” on my last 12 picture roll of Tri-X 120.  With the conductor/pilot firmly grasping my belt and pants, I got down on my stomach and leaned far enough out the open cab door so my line of sight was beyond the grab irons.  One chance to take one shot.  My old hand-me-down Weston light meter gave me a reading of 1/500th of a second at f8.  With the yellow filter on the lens, I fudged a stop and set for f5.6 just for good measure.

“Better hurry-up, I ain’t gonna hold onto your ass much longer,” the conductor told me.

I twisted my head around, steadied the camera as best I could and looked down into the viewfinder.  My Yashica twin lens reflex took sharp pictures, of that there was no doubt, but at times like this, simply putting a 35mm camera up to my eye sure would have been easier.  Neck aching, I waited until the river filled the lower portion of the viewfinder and clicked the shutter.

“Hoist me up!” I hollered.

“Hell with it, we’re just gonna leave you there on the floor,” came the answer from the engineer sitting directly above me.

In this day and age of rapid-fire photography, it is hard to image a time when photographers worked for just that one shot.  Not “that one shot” in a series of a dozen taken within nano-seconds of each other, no, just that one shot.  That was the case when I was first trying to learn the fine hobby of railroad photography. 

This photo taken of a mid-train helper set crossing the Foss River was the climax of a two day stay up on Washington’s Stevens Pass in the fall of 1970.  Two days where I rode the helpers over to Cashmere and back, shooting the action.  Two days of recording the beginnings of the Burlington Northern, all etched on a grand total of 36 frames of film.  Two days where a 17 year old kid was living a dream.

I learned to make every shot count in those days.  The idea then was not how many rolls of film I shot, but how many “keepers” were on each roll.  There are times when I wander from that notion, banking on quantity producing a least one good photo. When I catch myself in that mindset, I go back to the tattered proof sheets of those three rolls shot in the fall of 1970.  It is amazing what can be accomplished when every shot has to count.

Martin Burwash

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