Tickets on Sale for 2014 Conference

The Center’s annual conference, Conversations about Photography, will be held May 16–18, 2014, on the campus of Lake Forest College (May 16–17) and at the Chicago History Museum (May 18). Presenters include Jeff Brouws, Scott Conarroe, Mike Danneman and Ron Flanary, Travis Dewitz, John Gruber, Victor Hand, Kevin P. Keefe, Blair Kooistra, Kathi Kube, and Glenn Willumson. Learn more and purchase tickets on the conference page.

Mike Danneman, New York Central Hudson taking water on the fly
Mike Danneman, One Fleeting Moment, 1990. New York Central J-3a Hudson locomotive no. 5450 scooping water on the fly along the Hudson River. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 48 in. by 24 in. Danneman and Ron Flanary will discuss their approaches to painting and photography at the 2014 conference.

Olsen Wins 2013 Gruber Award

Ronald Olsen of Coventry, Rhode Island, has won first prize in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s 2013 John E. Gruber Photography Awards Program. Olsen has been photographing nocturnal steam operations in China since 2001, and his view from the Beitai Steelworks in Liaoning Province combines ambient lighting and industrial conditions in an unusual and very dramatic way. Second prize went to Daryl-Ann Saunders, Brooklyn, New York, while Nick D’Amato of Denver, Colorado, took third prize. Twenty-five additional photographers—hailing from three continents—received recognition in the “Judges Also Liked” category.

Go to the awards page to read more and see all of the winning and selected images.

First Place: Ronald Olsen

Railroad Art Today

Photography is not the only form of contemporary art depicting rail transportation. In spring 2013, the Center embarked on a survey of non-photographic art. Our survey resulted in responses from nearly 200 artists, primarily people working in paint, ink, or graphite, and an expanded issue of Railroad Heritage.

See our Flickr gallery of sample work from survey respondents.

We learned a lot more about contemporary rail artists. For example, most (57.7%) were either self-employed, employed part-time, or retired. A little over one quarter of respondents to our survey included some reference to the arts as part of their career. Frequent terms included “artist”, “graphic designer”, and “painter.” Slightly fewer (21%) mentioned current or past employment in the rail transportation industries.

Most of the artists we got responses from were self-taught, with only a little under a third having formal arts educations. Only 29 respondents described themselves as full-time artists, although another 33 stated they were working towards that goal.

Methods used by the artists were pretty evenly split between the three most popular painting mediums (oil, watercolor, and acrylics) and both pencils and inks. The category “other” had a strong showing as well, and included a variety of methods such as 3-D modelling, digital graphic designs, and digitally created paintings.

Excerpts from Responses

One of the most illuminating parts of our survey was the range of comments. Artists told us about how they became interested in railways, how they developed their artistic abilities, and what inspires them. Here are some anonymous selections from the survey that we found engaging.

“My interest in trains goes as far back as my earliest childhood memories. Long before I could walk or talk, I remember being particularly aware of a sound at night that held me transfixed. It was complex… melodic… mysterious… mournful… and lugubrious. It was the sound of steam locomotive whistle on the Chicago and North Western mainline, which ran a mile from our house. Some people thought trains were part of my genetic make-up because I developed an interest in them so quickly. I responded to the whistle before I even knew what it was.”

“I discovered painting in my formidable years of college and always had been inspired by the work of photo realistic rail artists like Mike Schafer, Mike Dannemann and Gil Reid and started basing a lot of my subject matter on trains and railroads as my knowledge of color theory and painting technique began to develop.”

“I enjoy watching trains, artistically they are a cascade of changing shapes and shadows. In some mediums they are very linear and my style resonates with that aspect. The Industrial aspect shows beauty in mans intrusions into nature.”

“One of my favorite subjects is old towns in the upper midwest, mainly Minnesota, North Dakota, and eastern Montana, that were created because of the railroads, and whose fates were tied to those rails. People came with the trains and left when the trains stopped coming. Usually the train cars themselves are long gone, and only tracks remain, and other times even those have gone.”

“I like to show the human connection to the machines. Throughout my career I have learned to appreciate the moods of railroading and how it effects the humans that are part of that moment. The moods are part of the story that I attempt to create and share.”

Learn More

To learn more about this project, see issue 34 of Railroad Heritage. To see samples of work from artists who responded to the survey, as well as contact information for artists taking commissions, see our Flickr gallery, or view the slideshow below.



Wonderland, Adam Normandin, 24″ x 52″, acrylic and oil on panel, 2010.

Mediums Graph

J. Craig Thorpe: Wilderness Threshold
Wilderness Threshold, J. Craig Thorpe, 18″ x 24″, oil on canvas, 2000.

Leading photography school to feature railroad bridge

One of the nation’s top photography schools, the Rochester Institute of Technology, is featuring a railroad scene in its annual photography event. “The Big Shot” is an annual nighttime community photography project produced by RIT’s School of Photographic Arts & Sciences. Its 29th edition in February 2014 will feature the ex-New York Central bridge over the High Falls of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester, New York. While meetings with city of Rochester officials have already begun, planning is in the fledgling stages. The team’s biggest wish is to secure a vintage train—frozen in time—on the bridge above the falls. Past Big Shot subjects have included Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Center looks forward to the results of the next Big Shot, which we will share here.


CSX’s ex-New York Central bridge over the High Falls of the Genesee River in downtown Rochester, New York, will be featured in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s 2014 Big Shot community photography project. Photograph by Michael Peres.

Help Us Showcase More Art

Results from our artists’ survey are already impressive, with more than 150 responses to date. You can help us feature more of these artists’ work by making a special donation to expand the next issue of Railroad Heritage. Our budget allows for a twenty-four-page issue, with fourteen pages slotted for the art feature. With an extra $500, we can add four pages; with $1,000, we can add twelve pages. Donate now to help us feature as much artwork as possible!

Thanks for helping distribute the survey go to several of our friends and members, and especially to Peter Mosse, David Plowden, Jim Porterfield and the American Society of Railway Artists. Their assistance in this effort has been a great value, and we thank them. If you are an artist who approaches railroad subjects in mediums other than photography and have not yet filled out our survey, please do so by the end of the month.

Painting of a steam train excursion
Matt Kierstead, Nevins Yard, Framingham, Massachussetts. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 1985.