Jim Shaughnessy: The Call of Trains

Installation of the exhibition "Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy" at the California State Railroad Museum
The installation of “The Call of Trains,” shown here at the California State Railroad Museum, features 11×14 prints on light-colored mats and frames. A copy of the book, which shares its name with the exhibition, is displayed under glass in the foreground.

The Center produced The Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy in conjunction with the book of same title by Shaughnessy and Jeff Brouws (W.W. Norton, 2008). The exhibition includes twenty-four framed 11×14 black-and-white prints on 16×20 mounts. The exhibition also includes two large, unmounted prints, descriptions of all the images, and biographical information about photographer Jim Shaughnessy. The complete installation occupies approximately 100 running feet and is available to travel, and the authors are available for talks and book signings. The exhibition was featured at the California State Railroad Museum in spring 2009.

Shaughnessy and a small crew of his colleagues distinguished themselves from other railroad photographers of their generation by starting to think more photographically, exploring the camera’s potential more creatively. Collectively, and with the support and encouragement of then-Trains editor David P. Morgan, they blasted through the calcified bedrock of the three-quarter, wedge-shot tradition, developing a new visual language for railroad photography that in the 1950s found its way, slowly but surely, into the railfan print media. Because of these innovations, railroad pictures were lifted into the realm of art for the first time, warranting different consideration by photographers, editors, and the public.

As part of this advance guard, Shaughnessy made conscious decisions to see beyond trains, embracing the “ugly beauty” of industrial environments. This decision set him apart from most amateur photographers of the day. Despite his unusual status, Shaughnessy forged ahead, relying on intuition and passion. He buoyed himself and his craft with a healthy dose of self-reliance coupled to an inner drive that bordered on, and even crossed over into, obsession. His aesthetic choices demonstrated the desire to include the human element, the desire to place trains and locomotives in a broader context, and the desire to explore the railroad after dark. This man from Troy, New York, was a germinating force within the school of American train photography that was taking root in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Shaughnessy’s depictions of America’s railroad culture within the urban townscapes, cities and rural topographies of the Northeast helped provide others with new visions. His content-filled compositions capture a sense of place and a sense of time, describing in well-observed moments how the engines, railroaders, terminals, yards, station architecture, geography and landscape looked.

Jim Shaughnessy is an astute historian who bears witness to perhaps the most dynamic epoch of American transportation. He photographed in a region of the country that had more railroad companies operating per square mile than any other part of the nation. Both big systems and one-engine-on-the-roster wonders operated with esoteric equipment and inspired fabled stories. He covered them all exhaustively, with affection and without pretense. His deep connection to this past vividly brings it into the present, helping us realize the true importance of his work. His images are valuable documents that broaden our understanding of railroading’s visual culture at mid-century, successfully linking all who see them to railroading’s past in a way that only photographs can.