Then World War II and Army service at the headquarters of an armored division in Europe intervened from 1942 through 1945. But on March 1, 1946, Johnson began his years-long rail-photography avocation, writing, “One has to start somewhere if he is to take action pictures of railroad subjects, and after putting it off for a while I started here—on 11th St. in Michigan City, Indiana,” where he was working for the YMCA.
Johnson (1913—2007) had majored in biology for his bachelor’s degree and had obviously developed a natural scientist’s love for categorizing and description—taxonomy. He applied this training to railroads and the images he took, largely in northern Indiana, in and around Michigan City, and in northeastern Ohio, in and around Elyria, where he moved to another YMCA job in 1948. The early albums are meticulously organized, each image printed personally by Johnson and accompanied by typewritten descriptions. Later, he eliminated the captioning, perhaps because it was better to put photographs in albums without writing a paragraph about each image than to let the images pile up unmounted.
Johnson did not discriminate among steam, electric, and diesel. He shot what he saw locally, sometimes with people in the images. His first photograph was of a Chicago South Shore & South Bend freight train, with an animated engineer leaning out of the cab. His last images were made in the mid-to-late 1950s. Railroad historian Brian Solomon finds this circumscribed universe a plus for researchers. He calls the albums “a valuable documentary record of everyday railroading,” one which illustrates “the crucial time period . . . when America’s railroads were making the transition from steam to diesel. . . . He . . . didn’t shy away from photographing diesels at a time when many serious photographers shunned them.”
Professionally Johnson worked for the Elyria Y’s boys program through 1961, and he ran its summer camp’s nature museum and classes. From the Y he moved to the Lorain County park system as a naturalist and newsletter editor. He helped found the local Audubon chapter, and edited its newsletter, too. The park system has named a visitor center for him.
Frank Johnson retired in 1984. In 2009 his widow donated his railroad photographs to the Center—ensuring that the very work she encouraged him to produce would be safe and available for the future.
Johnson Collection Overview
- Gift of Dorothea Nance Johnson
- Forty-one albums of black-and-white contact prints and enlargements
- Static and action views of trains in the 1940s and 1950s
- Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and California
- Railroads include the New York Central, Nickel Plate Road, the Chicago South Shore & South Bend