OREN B. HELBOK
A few years ago, I asked my father if he had a photographic philosophy, some system of constructing a picture. “I like what my eyes like,” he said to me – and I cannot pretend that I have any clearer explanation of why I make the photos that I do. However, I have realized in the past few years that I want to capture railroading in a big-picture way – the way my father has always looked at the world, putting things into context. To me – and I do not claim any originality in this theory – railroading encompasses three major themes: first, the landscape, and by that I mean everything surrounding the railroad, from towns and countryside to the weather; second, the hardware – the tracks, signals, locomotives, and cars themselves; and third, the people who bring the trains to life.
I consider myself a very lucky person, but in the most fundamental sense, not at all through preparation but an accident of birth: I had parents who, among so many other things, recognized my passion for trains and not only nurtured it but shared it. I do not remember a time when I did not love trains. My father grew up loving airplanes, but whether or not he thought he would pass that passion for airplanes along to me, he became an almost instant railfan in his late 20s when he saw my interest in trains.
My father started taking pictures long before my birth, to document my mother and the places he and she went, and he made a darkroom out of the bathroom in the apartment that I came to grow up in. He worked in black & white, initially with a 35-millimeter half-frame Olympus Pen FT and a range of lenses.
Covington, Virginia, 1977 -- John E. Helbok photo
My father surrounded me with photos. I devoured Trains Magazine every month, and I learned every photo in David Plowden’s Farewell to Steam by heart long before I could read. More and more books came into the house, and images by men named Plowden, Hastings, Shaughnessy, Steinheimer, Gruber, Beebe, Clegg, and a host of other masters helped form my view of the world. When making my own photos later, I tried for many years to follow in their footsteps without even thinking about it consciously. As a midget chasing after giants, it would have required an impossible leap for me to get from any one of their footsteps to the next, of course, so I took lots of little steps.
Most importantly for me as a child, my father’s own photos hung on the walls of my room.
Before I turned 7, my father gave me a camera and taught me how to use it, and he taught me how to work in a wet darkroom, with Dektol and Plus-X and Kodak RC paper. He also gave me some advice about how to compose a picture, primarily to think about what I would NOT want in it, i.e. other railfans, billboards, diesel locomotives, and the like. Neither one of us has ever tried to make photos to deliberately fool anyone into thinking they dated from decades earlier, but on the other hand we have almost always wanted to avoid modern intrusions.
Mostly, though, my father taught me how to see by teaching me how to BE. By that I mean he encouraged, and embodied, an endless curiosity about the world and a need to explain it. He can talk to anyone, anywhere, and I count this as just about my most valued inheritance from him; aside from greasing the wheels of human interaction, it also leads to access: Ask me about the strip mine in Hazleton and the dragline shovel whose cab he and I got invited to visit one day as the operator moved house-sized scoops of rock around.
At the Center for Railroad Photography & Art conference in the fall of 2016, Alexander Benjamin Craghead gave a talk on J.B. Jackson, a 20th-century American academic with, in Craghead’s words, “a clever talent for gaining attention among influential people”. Jackson’s ideas have not yet had much of an influence on railfan photography, but the very last sentence of that CRPA presentation resonated powerfully with me. Although motivated by some sense of nostalgia for the lost world of “real” steam railroading, I also want to make images that stand on their own as art. Speaking of the contemporary “lonely, isolated” railroad landscape, Craghead asked “What might we see, as photographers, if we attempted to make such characteristics more centrally our subject? How might we change railroad photography if, like Jackson, we less often looked backwards, and more often looked around?”
Kings Dominion, Virginia, 1977 -- John E. Helbok photo
I ask this question more broadly of myself now when at trackside: What other possibilities exist in addition to the easy choice? What will I see if I stand back farther and look around?
Having gone digital, now with a Nikon D810, I can easily do things with a camera that I never would have dreamed of trying in the film days. Making thousands of snapshots of my kids probably helped me learn to think in color, but the ease with which I can change ISO and auto-focus points, and especially that I can instantly see the results on the back of the camera, with histograms, still strikes me as almost miraculous and has helped me become a better photographer.
Within the grand theme of railroading, I now see the most important part as the people who make the trains run. It took me many years to come to that realization; I spent my youth and young adulthood shooting hardware. Now I understand the importance of making portraits of railroad people. Having lost that chance with so many over the years — Eddie and Rudy, the signal maintainers at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx; Lloyd and Norm, steam-era veterans who taught new generations how to run trains at the Black River & Western in New Jersey; and the list goes on and on — I do not want to make those mistakes again and again. So I have become much less shy about pushing my lens into someone’s face, or at least fairly close and off on the side a little.
John and Oren Helbok at the Strasburg Rail Road, February 2015
My father has given away far more prints than he ever has had photos published, which number in the few dozen. But I early learned from him that if one wants to make someone happy – and, by the way, get future access to his enginehouse and perhaps even his engine's cab – give him a photo of his engine and, even better, himself. I now count many of the people who work on steam as my friends, and they do not seem to mind me and my camera; quite a few of them have my photos on their walls.
In short, I love these machines, the most seemingly alive of all of humanity’s creations; I want to capture their drama and beauty, and I want to share the feelings they evoke in me.
In September 2019, I presented "Two Viewfinders . . . One Point of View", about my photography and my father's, at the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art; you can watch the presentation here.
Find me on elsewhere on the Web at facebook.com/wheresteamlives
Learn more about how I use my Tamron wide-angle zoom lens here.
Learn about the railroad-history organization that I support
through volunteering at RRProject113.org
Learn about the community-arts organization that I work
for at ExchangeArts.org
In June 2018, Erika Funke of WVIA-FM in Pittston, Pa., interviewed Oren about his photography for her weekday program, "ArtScene"; you can listen to the piece, on SoundCloud, here.