Photo by Mike Johannessen. Heavy braking current sets an arc ablaze on a San Francisco Municipal Railroad train descending through Mission Dolores Park. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Justin told me that when he inherited his collection of railroad magazines, he came to appreciate writing alongside photography. Hoping to combine his passions with a profession, he entered college at San Jose State as a journalism major, but changed to business after two years for practical concerns.
“I’ve always wanted to possibly pursue a position that was on some railroad. Not necessarily in train service, but dispatcher or other kinds of management. I just figured business administration might help me toward that,” Justin said. “But I’ve always kind of liked writing, and it was kind of hard to give up journalism, but I thought it was probably the best for me. … The way things are going with the [journalism] industry, it doesn’t look good.”
Mike, on the other hand, told me that he never seriously considered a career in anything related to photography. He developed a strong mechanical aptitude early in his childhood, working on model trains and quickly learning how to make drawings to scale and with perspective. After receiving a B.S. degree from Berkeley, he has started a career in mechanical engineering, and while he currently works in the wastewater industry, his railroad interest helped get him there. As his father said, “I think his mechanical aptitude is a direct result of his interest in trains.”
Trains even played a more direct role in Mike’s employment. He learned of his current job through a contact that his father made while riding the commuter train to work.
“I’m pretty happy with the separation between work and leisure right now,” Mike told me. “From the late high school era, I knew I wanted to go into engineering. … I also think I can make more money in engineering, and I enjoy [engineering], too.”
Justin and Mike continue to photograph extensively during the evenings, days off, and over long vacations. In January 2010, they made a nine-day photography trip to Nevada together with Mel Patrick, a long-time railroad photographer noted for his innovative uses of light. Mike and Justin also photograph frequently in California both together and independently. While their friendship hinges on railroads, they both told me that they share numerous other interests, frequently discovered in the long drives and waits between trains.
Both are going through the transitional phases of early adulthood, and the choices and circumstances they face now could have long-reaching impacts on both their friendship and their photography. Mike is settling into a career, and Justin is finishing college and working for the City of Sunnyvale while still seeking his longterm professional path. Mike remains single for now, while Justin’s girlfriend, Kelly, has become a frequent companion on their photography expeditions, taking the camping and “guy talk” in seemingly perfect stride. “I love the chance to get out and see different places,” she told me while we scouted photo locations with Justin and Mike on a logging road high in the Sierra. “It’s exciting.”
I see the work-life-passion balance as a challenge to both as they grow older. However, the strong and dynamic community of California railroad photographers offers a great support network. As Justin’s mother told me, “Those friends that he has made, his railroad photography friends, have been better friends for him than any of the friends he had in high school.”
Mike and Justin have already made great contributions to railroad photography, from Mike’s community-building through his pioneering websites, to both of their bodies of work, which builds on and enhances the Golden State’s strong legacy of railroad photography. I am not alone in hoping that the future will enable both of them to continue their contributions to the field.