Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Sadsbury | Six Miles of Fill

A temporary wooden trestle supports two diminutive 3-foot gauge steam locomotives and their hopper cars, used to haul fill material from land holdings along Zion Hill to the   six   mile   fill Charles A. Sims & Company constructed for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch  .

A temporary wooden trestle supports two diminutive 3-foot gauge steam locomotives and their hopper cars, used to haul fill material from land holdings along Zion Hill to the six mile fill Charles A. Sims & Company constructed for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna Branch.

Concurrent to the improvements on the main line at North Bend railroad contractor, Charles A. Sims & Company of Philadelphia was awarded the contract to complete the grading and masonry work for the easternmost segment of the Atglen & Susquehanna project in 1903. Sim's crews began the monumental task of building the new right of way in Sadsbury Township between Atglen (A&S milepost 3.3) west to Milepost 9, just beyond Lamparter Road, a total of almost six miles. Diverging from the shared right of way of the PRR Main Line that ran alongside the ridge of the North Valley Hills, the new line required a massive earthen fill to maintain the gentle grade as it veered southwest into the rolling countryside of Southern Lancaster County, making the ascent to Mars Hill Summit. 

Workers pose in front of the masonry work of the 60' arch spanning Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. While it appears that much of the stonework is complete, the task of backfilling the span and wing walls is yet to be completed as construction progresses west toward Mars Hill Summit. 

Workers pose in front of the masonry work of the 60' arch spanning Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. While it appears that much of the stonework is complete, the task of backfilling the span and wing walls is yet to be completed as construction progresses west toward Mars Hill Summit. 

Material excavated from various improvement projects had been stockpiled on landholdings in the vicinity of Zion Hill. A six-mile narrow-gauge railroad was constructed to transport the fill material from these deposits, crossing over the mainline on a wooden trestle and on to the new right-of-way via temporary trackage. The usual assortment of manpower, steam shovels and a copious amount of dynamite were then employed to generate additional material needed to construct the new right of way. Part of this six-mile segment involved building the first bridge from the east; a large 60' single-arch masonry structure that spanned the historic Noble Road and the East Branch of the Octoraro Creek. The stone arch and wing walls were erected and then backfilled with material hauled in by Sim's narrow gauge railroad, a process repeated countless times as the line reached further west into Lancaster County. 

While Sim's length of the A&S and the rest of the branch has found a renewed purpose as a recreational resource since abandonment in the Conrail era, the arch at Noble Road remains a symbolic portal, marking the crossing from Chester to Lancaster County. More importantly, it is a reminder of the stark contrast between the A&S and the role it played in our national railway network and the quiet life on the farm, typical of Southern Lancaster County. 

Celebrating Horseshoe

The Kittanning Reservoir occupies the gap created by Burgoon Run, where J. Edgar Thomson was faced with a decision of spanning the gap or filling the smaller Glen White and Kittanning Runs. The purpose of utilizing the horseshoe design is evident in the elevation changes of the railroad, visible above the gap along the left and right hillsides. 

The Kittanning Reservoir occupies the gap created by Burgoon Run, where J. Edgar Thomson was faced with a decision of spanning the gap or filling the smaller Glen White and Kittanning Runs. The purpose of utilizing the horseshoe design is evident in the elevation changes of the railroad, visible above the gap along the left and right hillsides. 

In 1851 J. Edgar Thomson, the first Chief Engineer of the young Pennsylvania Railroad began construction of the Mountain Division between the Johnstown area and Altoona.  Thomson faced two significant obstacles on the division, how to tunnel through the solid rock walls near the summit and how to get the Main Line from Altoona west up the mountain.

An eastbound descends into Horseshoe Curve, seen from the Kittanning Reservoir. 

An eastbound descends into Horseshoe Curve, seen from the Kittanning Reservoir. 

Thomson's endeavor for the PRR was not the first route over the Alleghenies in Blair County. The Allegheny Portage Railroad, part of the state-owned Main Line of Public Works completed in 1834, utilized a series ten inclined planes, five on either side of the summit, to surmount the Alleghenies. It proved to be a slow and dangerous part of an already arduous journey that required train, canal and these inclined planes to travel across the Commonwealth, taking some 4.5 days. 

View eastward from atop of Tunnel Hill, where Thomson faced the challenge of building the line through solid rock requiring cuts and tunnels nearing the Summit. 

View eastward from atop of Tunnel Hill, where Thomson faced the challenge of building the line through solid rock requiring cuts and tunnels nearing the Summit. 

Thomson opted to by-pass the troubled Main Line of Public Works and the APRR all together, turning west from the Juniata Valley in Altoona. To maintain a route with a ruling grade of 1.8% the new railroad would hug the foothills toward the summit, utilizing the natural topography of the ridge to Kittanning Point. Here, the Kittanning and Glen White Runs converge in the valley of Burgoon Run creating a significant challenge. Faced with a decision of spanning the considerable gap of Burgoon Run, Thomson, instead employed Irish laborers wielding pickaxes and shovels to fill the gaps of Kittanning and Glen White Run and thus completing the arced curve around Burgoon Run that became known as the Horseshoe Curve.

A helper set nears the point of the Allegheny Summit in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania, west of the Gallitzin and Allegheny Tunnels. 

A helper set nears the point of the Allegheny Summit in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania, west of the Gallitzin and Allegheny Tunnels. 


The line over the Alleghenies and Horse Shoe Curve opened on for service on February 15, 1854. Though the State Works attempted to improve their route by opening the New Portage Railroad in 1855, it ultimately failed, later becoming part of the PRR system, serving as an alternative route in times where traffic warranted its use. After 164 years of continual operation Horseshoe Curve continues to be a vital piece of rail transportation infrastructure, a testament to Thomson’s engineering ability in constructing one of the most celebrated railroads in American history. 

Winter Exhibitions

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9 New Jersey Photographers | Stockton University - Through March 28th, 2018 | Pictorialism, Pure or Straight Photography, Modernism, Social Documentary Photography, Post Modernism - like any other art forms, photography has had its share of dominant styles promoted by leading practitioners, critics, curators and by publications, and enshrined in galleries and museums. But today every style, every ism, every mode of making and printing photographs vies equally for attention and appreciation. 

This group of New Jersey photographers represents that diversity in striking ways. Some document the actual world unadorned, from images of the landscape to those of the inner city. Some make pictures that are totally abstract. Some take the world as it is. Some construct what they are going to photograph. Some print using present digital technologies, some using traditional 20th-century chemical processes, some using older alternative photographic processes. Some do not even use a camera, relying instead on light itself or even photographic chemicals alone to create an image. 

In an era where almost none of the billions of photographs made every year are ever printed, this exhibition not only presents some of the wide diversity of image making among photographic artists today, but allows us to contemplate the exquisite nature of the photographic print as an object. 

Stephen Perloff, Curator. 


I am honored to be part of this incredible exhibition curated by Stephen Perloff, editor of the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector. The exhibition, featuring the work of 9 NJ based photographers is on view through March 28th, with a closing reception and talk with Curator Stephen Perloff on Tuesday, March 6th at 5 PM.

The Stockton University is located at 101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway, NJ.  The campus Art Galleries are located in L-wing adjacent to the Performing Arts Center; visitors can park in Lots 6 or 7.  


In addition to the  9 NJ Photographers show, I also have several pieces hanging in two ongoing group exhibitions on view in the Delaware Valley. 

Photography 37 - Perkins Center for the Arts  - Through March 26th

Perkins 37th annual photography exhibition exemplifies the best and most innovative work by photographers from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond. This year's exhibition was juried by Hope Proper, renowned collector, former Curator of Exhibitions & Founder of Perkins Center’s Annual Photography Exhibition. 

Gallery Hours
Thursdays & Fridays 10 am - 2 pm
Saturday & Sunday 12 pm - 4 pm
This exhibition is free and open to the public.

Perkins Center for the Arts
395 Kings Highway | Moorestown, NJ 08057 


2018 Professional Artist Members Exhibition - Main Line Art Center - Through February 15, 2018

2018 Professional Artist Members Exhibition at the Mainline Art Center, in Haverford, PA. The exhibition is a celebration of the MLAC members’ support and creative energy, featuring a range of works from photography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. 

Gallery Hours
Monday through Thursday: 10 AM to 8 PM, 
Friday through Sunday: 10 AM to 4 PM. 
This exhibition is free and open to the public. 

The Main Line Art Center
746 Panmure Road, Haverford PA

Interview | The Trackside Photographer

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Edd Fuller, editor of The Trackside Photographer; a blog focused on the railroad landscape. I am excited to share this interview about my ongoing work and how it ties into a central theme inspired by history. The following is the interview in its entirety as it was posted last week on The Trackside Photographer. Enjoy! 


Trackside Interview #3 - Michael Froio

Michael Froio is a photographer who focuses on the history of the industrial era and its relation to the modern landscape. His work has been published by the National Railway Historical Society, and he has presented lectures for the Center For Railroad Photography & Art, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and chapters of the National Railway Historical Society and Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society. Michael teaches photography at Drexel University and manages the school’s darkroom and photography facilities. Michael’s work may be seen on his website

The expansive Rockville Bridge stretches across the Susquehanna River, and remains the worlds longest stone arch bridge. Rockville a testament to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s engineering legacy, part of Michael’s ongoing project From the Mainline, a culmination of interests and ideas focused on the railroad and the landscape it travels.

The expansive Rockville Bridge stretches across the Susquehanna River, and remains the worlds longest stone arch bridge. Rockville a testament to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s engineering legacy, part of Michael’s ongoing project From the Mainline, a culmination of interests and ideas focused on the railroad and the landscape it travels.

Edd Fuller, Editor, The Trackside Photographer - Michael, I want to thank you for your generosity in sharing your work with our readers and for taking the time to talk with us. I usually start by asking about your interest in railroads, and we will get to that later, but first let’s talk about photography. You have chosen a career in photography. How did that come about?

Michael Froio - Thanks, Edd, It is a pleasure, and honor, to share my work with the Trackside Photographer, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what you are doing.

How did I get into photography? Hm. Well, I always had an interest in making photographs, at least since my young teenage years. At that time it very simply tied into my interest in trains. I wasn’t particularly good at making train photos, but while exploring the railroad (often with my father) I was always compelled to document what we found. When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Taking prerequisite classes like English lit and math classes bored me out of my mind. A friend and classmate mentioned he was taking a photo class, so I enrolled in Photo 110. My professor, Rachael Fermi (granddaughter of Enrico Fermi - the creator of the atomic bomb) was an incredible character. She did a terrific job teaching the foundations of photography while encouraging creativity, craft and an understanding of composition. After a few classes, I took a job as a lab monitor, mixing chemicals and managing the darkroom, typically during the evening hours. It was during this post that I fell in love with photography and the idea of teaching.

Moving on from Community College, I enrolled in Drexel University’s Photography Program. I found Drexel’s program was a perfect balance of technical and creative instruction; not an art school type program, but a curriculum focusing on how to visually communicate through photographs, and that they could function in both a commercial or fine art context. I think the course that had the most significant impact on me was the Large Format class. It was a challenging course technically (I still hold the record for reshoots of my exposure and development test for the zone system) but by far the most rewarding, producing these large, 4◊5î negatives. After graduating, I began work in the field as Assistant Facilities Manager at the Drexel Photo Program, and was then promoted to Facilities Manager. Working in an environment I’ve been invested in has been incredibly rewarding, including being part of bringing the 10,000sq. ft. facility into the 21st century, several lab re-designs and helping develop an evolving curriculum. I am also very fortunate to have the opportunity to teach in the Program, including foundation coursework for our majors, and an Advanced Black & White Printing course, among others. Drexel not only helps me to sustain my family and provides an opportunity to teach, but also affords me the ability to pursue my personal work, allowing me to find my purpose in photography.

Edd - Much of your photography has focused on the industrial landscape and architectural history. What sparked that interest?

Michael - As an artist, you go with your gut. I responded to these types of places without knowing why, but from the first time I composed an image of a building or landscape, the gears were turning. What is it about this site? Why am I compelled to make a photo here? It’s intuition at first, the eye sees something long before the mind connects the dots. I had to sort of go with it. It took time to understand that my interest in photographing a landscape or type of architecture comes from a fascination with our history, whether civic, industrial, or social. It took time to see the inter-relatedness of civic institutions, industry and architecture; to see that public buildings spoke to the wealth, power, progress and civic pride cities large and small shared, but that purpose-driven industrial architecture and landscapes were the working class spaces behind that civic pride. This notion still compels me to make photographs today, whether along the Main Line or anywhere else; our country’s history is a significant thread that continues to weave throughout my creative work.

Bordentown Bluffs, Crosswicks Creek, Mercer County, New Jersey.

Bordentown Bluffs, Crosswicks Creek, Mercer County, New Jersey.

Edd - On your website, I particularly enjoy the photography in The Watershed Project which is not about railroads. You write that it  "is about the beauty of the benign and unremarked place, challenging our perception of the natural landscape..." This seems to apply to your railroad photography as well. Tell us a bit about this project, and how it fits with your overall vision of the landscape.

Michael - The watershed project was a logical progression of my senior thesis work, both of which largely took place in Southern New Jersey and the Delaware Valley. For thesis, I was looking at the open spaces of Salem and Cumberland Counties, mainly farmland, recognizing that such space has unfortunately become rare in the so-called Garden State. Through work on that project, I began taking notice of beautiful, unconstructed spaces of a wholly different type in the same region, mainly along the Delaware River and Bay. They were undefined areas, places that didn’t seem to have a purpose on their face, but where locals would hike, hunt, fish, etc. Were these preserved spaces? Did they belong to a more extensive network? What was the purpose of these places? How did these swaths come to exist? As I continued to examine these areas, I expanded my reach into less idyllic places, where these fringe, improvised landscapes abutted industry - airports, refineries, or dredging dumps. These were the places you might see from a highway, seemingly barren spaces. Yet, once you entered them and escaped the noise of the neighboring areas I found many were incredibly beautiful, seeming more pristine and isolated than any number of curated, patrolled, trafficked National or State Park areas. All these places made me think more and more about how we perceive the landscape around us. We understand farmland; it has a purpose, it produces a tangible result, as do industrial spaces. Parks are designed for recreation, cities and town centers are designed to serve the needs of their populations. But these unremarked tracts remain mostly undefined. The French term Terrain Vague highlights the idea that these spaces represent a diversion from our traditional understanding of the landscape and how we as a society identify with and interface with these areas. They are landscapes that may have once had a purpose but have become places void of definition - neither park, nor act of preservation nor productive, planned, commercial or social spaces. Yet they become places where only locals with intimate knowledge of the area have reason or standing to redefine the area with no need of a formal plan. The Watershed project and the previous works that lead to it, were an important part of learning how to understand and interpret the landscape.

Edd - Your work encompasses many different aspects of industrial and architectural history, but the railroad seems to hold pride of place. How did your interest in railroads come about?

Michael - While it is all interrelated, the railroad is at the beginning of it all, it was what compelled me to pick up a camera in the first place. The work featured on my website is organized in three succinct portfolios and speaks to an evolution of sorts in the way I work, the Main Line Project being the current capstone. It started with a desire to better understand the landscape, which came with the Watershed portfolio and all previous projects that led me there. The Relic portfolio helped to develop an understanding of how to weave history into creative works, and how photography can be a documentation tool while still being original. The Main Line Project was the culmination of those ideas, as well as countless other creative discoveries that have come as result of the ongoing work.

Edd - How did the Main Line Project come about?

Michael - The idea of the Main Line project was not a new one; in fact, I started it initially as my thesis work, and failed miserably because I didn’t understand what it was that I wanted to portray within the concept of the railroad itself. When I began the Main Line Project, in 2007, six years after that failure, the first year of photographs barely acknowledged the railroad at all, instead focusing on towns and industry along the line. It was my usual approach from work on the Watershed and Relic projects, but in a different environment. It wasn’t until I read an essay by John Stilgoe and his seminal book The Metropolitan Corridor that a light went off. Stilgoe’s concepts of breaking down and understanding constituent elements within the whole of the railroad landscape were right there in front of me, and I had been photographing these attributes without even realizing it. Remember that whole gut reaction first then the mind connects the dots? Well, here I was. Not long after that discovery, I began looking at ways to expand the reach of the project, ways to better connect the contemporary work within the historical framework of the subject. I found the research aspect of the project was generating as much excitement for me as being out in the field making photographs. As a result of my research, my imagery was more informed, my work process was more productive, and my viewpoint was evolving. As a result, the railroad itself began to play a more prominent role in the project since it takes, as you say, pride of place, the very thing that sparked this whole photography thing for me.

Northbound Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, Wilmington, Delaware. 

Northbound Waiting Room, Pennsylvania Station, Wilmington, Delaware. 

Edd - Your photographs in From the Main Line reflect the history of a railroad, but that history is interpreted in the context of the current landscape, which your black & white photographs capture beautifully. I sense though that your interest in the Pennsylvania Railroad extends beyond the railroad itself. What does the railroad tell us about the culture and history that lies along the tracks?

Michael - The railroad is the thematic tie that binds the project together (if you’ll pardon the pun), but for me, since the Pennsylvania Railroad ceased to exist well before my time, it’s the remaining contemporary landscape rather that reflects back to the railroad and its connections to neighboring towns and the landscape. For example, in the modern context, the railroad is often just passing through, void of any link to the town. In other places, there survives just a fragment from a more significant system or merely a scar in the landscape. I have always considered the railroad as a sort of linear history corridor, and along that tangent, one can learn how settlements were founded, thrived, withered, centralized and so on. This inhabited landscape repeats over and over again, showing the once significant relationship between the railroad and these cities and small towns, all through the back lots of America. It is also important to recognize that the railroad wasn’t always the first connection between these towns; early trade routes, canal systems, and other vital parts of early civilization and commerce all intertwined with the railroad corridor. All of these elements in the landscape create a dialogue, my job as a photographer is to interpret those connections, all the while making meaningful photographs.

Edd - You mention the work of William H. Rau as having influenced your work, How do Rau’s late 19th and early 20th century photographs of the Pennsylvania Railroad inform your 21st century understanding?

Michael - Every year, I give a lecture to one of our resident faculty member’s Photo History Classes, about the dialog between contemporary and historical works of art. The lecture is held at the Library Company of Philadelphia, where the Rau collection is on deposit. The visit gives students an opportunity to see how historical works can influence contemporary imagery, placing side by side Rau’s original prints commissioned by the PRR with my own. The discussion of dialog, in my case with Rau’s work, has been a multifaceted and informative relationship.

In 2003 I first discovered Rau’s work when visiting an exhibition at the Library Company titled "Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad." I wasn’t particularly captivated by 19th Century work at the time, but the press images looked great, and the subject certainly could not be rivaled. My knee-jerk reaction to this work was, "Wow! How could work made over 120 years ago feel so contemporary?" I loved that his work was about the railroad, but distinct from any work I had ever seen previously. In all books or publications I’d been exposed to, the train itself took a prominent role in the photograph. I found Rau’s work so compelling in its difference from this paradigm in that Rau’s work focused on the destination, the engineering marvel of the railroad itself and how it brought order and civility to the landscape. The train itself was secondary, it was more of a harmonious, machine in the garden if you will. Of course, I bought the book that accompanied the exhibition and studied the images. That show in 2003 planted the seed that led me back to the railroad when I applied for a grant with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists to begin the Main Line project in 2007.

Previously, I mentioned when I started the Main Line project my work focused more on the landscape, hardly acknowledging the railroad, something I had not quite figured out how to incorporate subtly. I turned to the Rau Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia for insight, contacting Prints and Photographs Curator Sarah Weatherwax, who was very gracious with her time, allowing me to study reference prints and then later Rau’s original mammoth plate albumen prints. Having Rau’s work in front of me, one on one, was pivotal, it was like a recharge of the creative battery in between photo trips. Rau’s work as a photographer was spectacular; they were crisp, sharp gorgeous prints, gleaming with information. More importantly, the content helped me understand a railroad that was becoming worthy of its self-proclaimed title, "The Standard Railroad of the World," with details of the railroad’s extensive system-wide improvements carefully tucked away in corners of these massive photographic prints.

I continue to take inspiration from Rau today, but I’ve also turned to his predecessors, like Purviance and Gutekunst who were also commissioned to photograph the PRR in earlier times. Outside of the PRR commissions, photographers like William Henry Jackson, AJ Russel, and Carleton Watkins who were being commissioned to document the opening of the west by rail also provide great insight on how the railroad changed our relationship with the landscape.

Abandoned Pratt Deck Truss Bridge, spanning the Little Juniata River, part of the remains of the former Lewisburg & Tyrone Railroad, a PRR subsidiary.  

Abandoned Pratt Deck Truss Bridge, spanning the Little Juniata River, part of the remains of the former Lewisburg & Tyrone Railroad, a PRR subsidiary.  

Edd - I know that a lot of research goes into a project like “From the Main Line.” Tell us about your working methods in the field. What do you look for? What draws you into a scene. Do you know where you are going to shoot in advance, or do you find your photographs while exploring the area?

Michael - I have found a synergy between what I like to call armchair scouting, historical research and my fieldwork. There is obviously a great deal of initial planning, especially since I often have limited time to travel. I do most of my scouting on Google Maps, saving and marking locations, based on previous visits, target locations, or intriguing names or landmarks within the landscape. I’ll note what time of day the light is right for a particular area, say a prayer to the cloud gods, and then start planning a trip. When I get out in the field, I do reference the maps, but the serendipity of discovery in the field is also very important. I can’t tell you how many times I have obsessed over a location only to get there and be disappointed, but on the way to that place find some incredible scene. Research indeed informs and helps to plan a trip, but I still rely on my intuition in the field while making photographs.

Its tough to say what draws me in to a particular scene; Sometimes it’s a subject, whether it be a relic or landmark of the railroad, town or a natural feature. There are however, with in those more spontaneous moments, the combination of light, feeling, and often a sense of scale or a dramatic play between the railroad and surrounding landscape that will make for a great image. There isn’t a specific formula that I can say goes into making an image like this, but there is nothing more exciting on a day shooting than being enroute to a location at dawn, and that morning light is playing in the clouds, or across the trees. That first photograph of the day is always critical, once it happens, its game on until the end of the day.

Outside of shooting or actively planning a trip, I am constantly analyzing my work, looking at prints or even on screen, conducting a mental audit of an area, looking to decide if I have enough work to convey a sense of place to a given area, before I move on to other locations. So far I haven’t been able to just turn my back on an area and say “I’m done here,” but the goal is to convey a story for each region or division within the project, touching on the character of the landscape, towns and the defining attributes of the railroad itself.

Edd - There is a consistency of vision in your black and white work that forms a strong unifying element in “From the Main Line." Most of this work is done in large format film. What prompted you to work in this way? What does large format black & white film bring to the project?

Michael - I don’t want to demystify the notion that large format has a great deal to do with the product, but to be honest, as I look back and begin to incorporate more and more digital capture I realize it was more my approach, composition, and style, that unify the work. Large format for me is a tool; at the time I started the project it was the main tool I used simply because digital wasn’t there yet, not for me. How can you justify trading a 5x7 negative for a 20-megapixel camera? You can’t; they aren’t even in the same ballpark. There are merits of the large format camera and I do love using it, as it provides a wonderful connection to the craft of making photographs. But once I started working with the advancing technology of digital capture in depth, during my commissioned work for Conrail I began to see how powerful this tool could be when used correctly.

When I commit myself to change like moving to digital, it’s after I have weighed all benefits and drawbacks of each tool. I have a few friends I will often confide in, who are not necessarily photographers, but people who will give me their honest opinion, whether I like it or not. One of these people, Anthony, a dear friend, who would often roll his eyes and harass me when the digital camera came out, sat down one evening with some work prints I made. He had never seen any of the digital work printed, just either on camera or on a laptop after a day of shooting. He sat there quietly thumbing through the prints, sighed and looked at me and said, “you’re right, the change to digital has not impacted your vision, your work, not in a negative anyway.” That was the confirmation that my transition into using digital capture was successful. A change in tool didn’t impact my vision. There are a lot of people who will argue the merits of film or digital, but after many years making pictures, the results are what matter to me. The tool you use to make pictures, whether it has a sheet of film loaded in it or a 50mp sensor, makes no difference to me, as long as you do it well.

Delair viaduct, span replacement project documentation for Conrail Shared Assets Operation, Port Richmond section, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

Delair viaduct, span replacement project documentation for Conrail Shared Assets Operation, Port Richmond section, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

Edd - Several years ago, you were commissioned by Conrail Shared Assets to document the reconstruction of the Delair Bridge in New Jersey. From black & white view cameras to color video production is quite a leap, but you bring it off beautifully. Tell us about how this project came about and how you decided on the best way to tell this story.

Michael - The commissioned work for Conrail Shared Assets came from a working relationship with, and mutual respect for, railroad engineering and history within the company’s engineering department. When I was first approached about the span replacement project at Delair, a video was being considered to document six 3-day, 72-hour outages, which were being planned over a 15-month period. 72 hours of video per outage meant 432 hours of raw footage. Who has the time to watch that, never mind the resources to archive, cull from, and edit such a massive collection? Did they want a feature film as a result? We proposed instead the use of time-lapse, essentially taking sequences of still photos at timed intervals, and then processing the stills into video clips. We could still convey the scope of work while touching upon all the needs of the client, and each outage could be distilled down to a three or six-minute edit.

There was, however, one minor hitch. At the time, I had not taken digital capture very seriously, not to mention that I’d never even worked in video at all. I knew I was approaching the deep end of the pool, but it is often opportunities like this that afford the ability to grow and learn. Another challenge for me as an image-maker was knowing that there was no possible way I could do this on my own. To rectify that, I contacted Samuel Markey, a former student who was now working with time-lapse and video in his own business. Our work ethic, ideas, and personalities synced perfectly. It was the right move. With each outage, we quickly learned what did and did not work and what we needed, in terms of both equipment and visuals. It was also very fortuitous to have a client who was open to ideas, suggestions and supporting whatever ridiculous request we may have thrown at them. Over three years Sam and I continued to push production levels as we worked on three major projects for Conrail - two at Delair, and one at Paulsboro, NJ. We forged relationships with the contractors and Conrail’s Bridge & Building and Engineering departments, delivering a product that was visually interesting while meeting the needs of the client for documentation. In the end, we got to be in places nobody from the outside would have access to, to make a meaningful and creative documentation of large-scale engineering projects in the railroad tradition. Overall, it was a fantastic and educational experience.

Edd - Creatively, what is your greatest challenge?

Michael - I think my biggest creative challenge is how to draw a diverse audience to my work, especially the Main Line Project. The success of this project so far has been the fact that it can function on multiple levels ñ historical, engineering, landscape studies, transportation, contemporary photography, etc. I am always looking for feedback, trying to edge out where the best responses to my work originate, be they blog publications, single images, portfolios, and exhibitions. Trying to keep my work fresh and relevant is my biggest priority. I often get asked, “When will the project be done?” I don’t know… I am still learning, still enjoying the discovery process and the dialog with the landscape and historical works. I feel like the project still has plenty of energy, the challenge is how to harness, and it keep it exciting, for me and for my audience.

Controlled Burn, along Alloway Creek, New Bridge Road, Salem County New Jersey. 

Controlled Burn, along Alloway Creek, New Bridge Road, Salem County New Jersey. 

Edd - What projects are you currently working on? Any new projects in the pipeline?

Michael - I wouldn’t necessarily say there are any new projects in the pipe, but rather evolutions of existing work. I continue to explore my native area of Southern New Jersey. The idea of making a long-standing body of work about a familiar landscape or place is fascinating to me. It is something that evolves alongside your life, while you take root and raise a family, a process that changes our views with age. These life experiences change how we perceive things, the landscape included. It’s exciting to me to have a back burner project to step in and out of occasionally, that I don’t have to think about too much, but can occasionally revisit. It allows time for the oft-viewed, rarely seen landscape to rest, and my vision to watch the change and evolution of photographs, slowly take place. It’s a familiar place to test out ideas, to keep the tools sharp if you will.

Edd - One of the concerns that is often voiced by organizations devoted to historic preservation is “Where are the young people who will carry on this work?” Since you teach young photographers who are just starting out, I am curious if any of your students display any interest in documenting and interpreting the past, or are they more tuned in to the trendier aspects of contemporary photography.

Michael – It’s interesting; photo students seem to come wired with an interest of all things old, maybe it’s the historical connection with photographic traditions, perhaps it’s nostalgia, or the modern urban exploration phenomenon, but students do indeed incorporate these notions into their work in various ways. Some students focus on documenting industrial and social landscapes, and when they do, of course, we all (faculty) encourage them to find their voice and how they can use it to make a living. Every student is different, and you have to leave your work out of the equation, to ensure they understand why they are drawn to a subject, and not just teaching them to emulate someone else’s work without understanding why. It is a delicate balance, as landscapes and history are not for everyone, but I do think there is a contingent of young adults that will carry the torch in preservation. I also think the next generation of preservationists and hobbyists are bringing a significant change in how we present and share ideas and organize and socialize with groups.

Making photographs can often be mainly a solitary exercise, especially for me, wandering the ruins of a vanished railroad or other forgotten spaces in-between. Beyond image capture, processing is also a solo act, alone in a darkroom, studio or office. But photography doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and sharing results is key to the undertaking. This is the advantage the next generation of preservationists and hobbyists will have, the enhanced ability to find and organize social groups to present and share ideas. It’s this difference I think will keep the goals of documentation and preservation alive and well moving forward.

Edd - The curriculum at Drexel requires photography majors to learn film photography and darkroom processing. What do students in this digital age, many of whom have never been exposed to “analog” photography, make of this? And why do you think that learning what is now seen by many as obsolete, is important to their education?

Michael - We don’t teach a lot of film-based technique, but what we do teach is incredibly important to the education of a photographer. The most important benefit of a student working in large or medium format film is that it teaches the student to slow down - how to look, think, and craft an image on the ground glass, how to meter and expose, develop and print the negative. Regardless of the tool, it’s important to learn that every step in the process is intertwined. It’s not that these skills can’t be learned in digital, but learning film technique forces the issue, because the results are absolute. If you go through all the steps, run the film, and the negative is less than optimal, you have to do it again, attempting to figure out what you did wrong in your process. If you have a RAW file that is poorly exposed, there are still options to recover something. In short, with film, the stakes are higher. You can’t teach “too much” of the “how” and “why”, the critical thinking part of the process. It’s this that’s too easy to lose in a photographic education absent of the analog process. After mastering those problem-solving skills, whatever tool a photographer chooses from the toolbox will be treated the same. Each format has its purpose, and today, there is nothing better or worse between them. Anyone arguing solely for the merit of film-based capture is romanticizing the process, and one asserting the supremacy of digital likely never understood or experienced what film is truly capable of. It’s a tool, just like the hammer. What matters, in the end, is how you use it.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad 1888 Pratt truss bridge spanning the Susquehanna River.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad 1888 Pratt truss bridge spanning the Susquehanna River.

Edd - You have a strong affinity for black & white in your own work, and of course you still work with film. How do you think your work would be different if you were working in digital color?

Michael - I learned color in the darkroom during my education and never really felt connected to it, the process was limiting, and the introduction of color to a photograph brought a whole new layer of subjectivity to an image. Now that I shoot a good bit of work digitally, I do see my work in color, albeit briefly, and so far, it’s done nothing for me, my mind just tunes it out. I certainly admire what others are doing in color, and of course, the big names like Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky, and Robert Polidori are awe-inspiring, but I’m just not feeling it for my work. Much of my work is focused on places outside their times, adding color would change this significantly. It would be too connected to reality and the present.

Edd - Railroads are an unusually visual subject. Railfans are photographers almost by definition. I can’t think of any special interest that has as strong a connection to photography as railroading. Why do you suppose this is?

Michael - I think there are a lot of hobby groups that make a natural fit with photography; of avid hikers many landscape photographers are made, and birding another one, but yes, photography is indeed a prevalent predilection in the railfan community. The connection appears to goes back to preservation again, be it of moments, places or things; and nostalgia for the railroad generally, since subjects loaded with nostalgia seem to be prime targets. Sometimes they seek to answer questions: What was that branch line’s purpose? How many passenger trains stopped at this now dilapidated depot? Or express a regional fandom. Countless fallen flag railroads each have their cult following; in many cases, their fans never even saw the original road in operation. Fortunately for all of us interested in this genre, preservation by photograph has been intertwined with the railroad itself since the dawn of photography, creating a visual anthology of railroading by both professional and amateur photographers alike. Still today, the only thing constant in the railroad industry is change, and photography seems to be the most common form of preservation.

Outside of the simple “preservation by photograph” approach, some railfans try to emulate the greats like Shaughnessy, Plowden, Hastings, Steinheimer, and Link. That is a beautiful thing; it reflects an intelligent and passionate response to the visual proficiency of these noted photographers, who left an undeniable mark on the entire industry and hobby. Technology has also played a significant role in the advancement of the genre. The flexibility of higher level ISO sensitivity in digital, the extended dynamic range, instant feedback, and being limited by only the space on their memory card, photographers have advanced their rail photography to levels that would make some of the greats envious. The point is, what drives a lot of these people is passion, whether they are good at making photographs, or it is a simple visual record to model a structure, you really can’t deny the important intersection of railroads and photography in our community.

Franklin Boro, and Main Line, from East Conemaugh, Pennsylvania.

Franklin Boro, and Main Line, from East Conemaugh, Pennsylvania.

Edd - Do you have a favorite among your own photographs, one that is particularly meaningful to you? Tell us about it.

Michael - I am always hesitant to answer questions like this, but if I had to single one out, I’d say, Franklin Boro, from East Conemaugh, PA is pretty damn close. I remember seeing it on the ground glass, it was an image I made while I was reading Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor, and it reinforces the connection between the railroad and the landscape. Layers of history stacked up on the mountainside, having seen an evolution of transportation and industrial history from those lofty views. Some would see a place like this as sad or depressing; I find these types of locations intriguing and beautiful. It’s a key image in the project.

Edd - And one last question. If you could spend a day photographing alongside any photographer from any era in the history of photography, who would it be, and why?

Michael - That is easy, William H Rau, however, I would need a little more than a day! I’d love to be in the meetings with PRR officials planning Rau’s campaigns in the 1890’s. To see what the expectations were from the client, and understand what Rau brought to the table, how they came to select the locations and the logistics of access. Being in the field would be interesting to see how they handled his photographic train and moving that incredibly bulky camera (his smallest was a 18x22” glass plate camera) all around an active railroad. I can only imagine some dispatcher pounding out messages on the telegraph telling the crew to move him along so he could get back to running trains!

Edd - I look forward to seeing where your exploration of the railroad landscape takes you, and thanks for letting us come along for the ride!

Michael - As always Edd, thank you, it’s a pleasure to be able to present my work like this, you don’t always have the opportunity to reflect back on your projects and ideas. This interview has been a great way to analyze my perspectives and assess how my ideas in photography and preservation have developed over the years. I know my approach to the subject is different from a lot of photographers interested in railroading, I hope this shed a little light on how and why I make the images I do. Thanks again for the opportunity, and keep up the great work on The Trackside Photographer!

Winter News | Interview & Exhibitions

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Pratt truss bridge spanning the Susquehanna River. Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

Former Pennsylvania Railroad Pratt truss bridge spanning the Susquehanna River. Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

New Interview | The Trackside Photographer

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Edd Fuller, editor of The Trackside Photographer, a blog focused on the railroad landscape. I am excited to share this interview about my ongoing work and how it ties into a central theme inspired by history. Follow the link to learn more about my process, creative work and how my interest in both the landscape and railroads has woven its way into my projects for many years. To read the interview visit The Trackside Photographer, or click the image above! 

Northward view, Susquehanna River, Marysville, Pennsylvania.

Northward view, Susquehanna River, Marysville, Pennsylvania.

Exhibitions | Current

2017 Members Exhibition | Main Line Art Center
Through January 3, 2018

I currently have a piece hanging in the 2017 Members Exhibition at the Mainline Art Center, in Haverford, PA. The exhibition is a celebration of the MLAC members’ support and creative energy, featuring a range of works from photography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and ceramics. 

Gallery Hours are Monday through Thursday: 10 AM to 8 PM, Friday through Sunday: 10 AM to 4 PM. This exhibition is free and open to the public. The Main Line Art Center is located at 746 Panmure Road in Haverford PA, offers free parking, and is easily accessible from public transportation. 

South Fork Creek, Soukesburg, Pennsylvania

South Fork Creek, Soukesburg, Pennsylvania

Exhibitions | Upcoming

9 New Jersey Photographers | Stockton University
January 16th through March 28th, 2018

My work will be part of an upcoming exhibition curated by Stephen Perloff, editor of the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector; the show spotlights nine NJ based photographers. An artists reception will be held Tuesday, March 6th at 5 PM followed by a talk with curator Stephen Perloff at 6:30 PM. More information will follow as the event approaches. 

The Stockton University Art Galleries are located on Lakeside Lane, Galloway, NJ in Galloway, NJ. Parking is available at the Lakeside parking area. 

Fire on the Line!

The massive Safe Harbor Bridge was just west of the temporary block station named Fire which was put into service in 1959. The block station and crossovers were located on the A&S Branch up on the embankment pictured here in the top right of the image, the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch is the line in the foreground.

The massive Safe Harbor Bridge was just west of the temporary block station named Fire which was put into service in 1959. The block station and crossovers were located on the A&S Branch up on the embankment pictured here in the top right of the image, the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch is the line in the foreground.

In a previous post, Managing the Line, we detailed the operations of dispatching trains on the Atglen & Susquehanna branch, one particular anomaly escaped the article. Thanks to the work of Abram Burnett who interviewed the late H. Wayne Frey a former PRR Block Operator, I am pleased to share an account of a brief occurrence on the A&S that necessitated an additional block station for a short time.

On Thursday, July 30th, 1959 Philadelphia Region general order No. 710 was put into effect to address a rising situation on the A&S branch just east of the Safe Harbor Bridge over the Conestoga River. Officials and crews discovered settling in the eastbound main (No. 1 Track) the result of an underground blaze ignited by a recent brush fire on the embankment. Officials found that the fill the A&S rode on comprised of dredged material that was suspected to contain river coal making the soil susceptible to fire.

Annotated track chart and General Order No. 710 effective July 30th, 1959 outlining the implementation of temporary block station Fire, Documents from the late H. Wayne Frey courtesy of Abram Burnett. 

Officials faced the issue of how to mitigate the situation while keeping trains moving through the area. The railroad installed a set of electric powered crossovers and signals between the compromised No. 1 track and the in-service No. 2 track to create a single-track gauntlet of approximately 700 feet. The railroad established a block station aptly named Fire; In service 24/7, the small wood shack outfitted with four small table interlocking switches (two for switch controls, two for signals) operated around the clock until sometime between February and April of 1961.  The stub-ended sides of the crossovers on No. 1 were retained to house tank cars supplied by Dupont Chemical who was contracted to extinguish the fire. As a means to prevent the situation from compromising the No 2 main track, the railroad drove sheet piles in between the tracks and installed a pipe system to feed the chemicals and water down into the subterranean fire.  Late in 1959, the nearby Susquehanna River was experiencing particularly severe ice jams that impacted the Columbia & Port Deposit Branch located at the bottom of the same smoldering embankment. A road crew on the Port Road brought a train to stop in the vicinity of Safe Harbor due to ice when an underground explosion occurred blowing out a part of the embankment. Fearing the worst the crew jumped from their locomotive. Fortunately, the worst injury was the broken ankle of the engineer, and there was no significant loss of life or property. In the first quarter of 1961, Dupont successfully extinguished the fire, and the A&S resumed normal operations. With No. 1 track rebuilt and the tempory switches and signals removed, the railroad closed its newest block station just shy of two years in existence.