Steam trains have had a lasting romantic appeal, especially for photographers.
In the new book Smoke Over Steamtown, published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Dennis A. Livesey documents the steam trains and the people who run them at Steamtown National Historic Site, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a working railroad museum dedicated to the history of steam trains in the United States.
Livesey is a train photographer whose work has appeared in magazines including Trains and Railfan & Railroad.
Along with shots of locomotives passing through snowy landscapes framed by billowing clouds, Smoke Over Steamtown also focuses on life in the maintenance shop and yard, recording images and stories from the people who work as mechanics and crew for the site’s steam locomotives, diesel-electric locomotives, passenger cars and freight cars.
“My first visits here were made as a photographer, inspired by such greats as O. Winston Link and Richard Steinheimer, who tried to capture the steam train experience on film.”
But he eventually “stepped through the looking glass,” as he puts it, and began working on the trains as a volunteer, in addition to photographing them. “Having undergone rigorous training, I serve as a Steamtown trainman and railroader myself.
Instead of capturing the action of others on camera, I am now the one throwing track switches, hooking up air hoses, turning locomotives on the ninety-foot turntable, and giving hand signals to the engineer who stops and starts the locomotive on my say-so.”
The result is an insider’s view of the work of running the site and its trains. Writes Livesey,
“This participation has not only been a new personal experience, it has invigorated my photography, providing a new perspective and lending an authenticity that it did not possess before.”
The discovery of steam power just 200 years ago powered the Industrial Revolution but like all one-time technological breakthroughs, the world long ago shunted most steam trains onto the sidelines of history.
Yet despite cleaner, more efficient and cheaper forms of transport having taken over, in a small corner of rural Australia the sights, sounds and smells of the Industrial Revolution are still alive.
Puffing Billy is Australia’s last full time railway employing steam engines at its main source of power.
Set in the picturesque Dandenong Ranges on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, this narrow gauge experiment was born from dour economic times in the 1890s.
For Puffing Billy driver Steve Holmes, whose life has been immersed in its soot and steel since he was painting carriages as a nine-year-old boy, steam, as much as blood, runs through his veins.
“I grew up at the end of the steam era, I’ve been around the engines all my life,” said Holmes, who became a driver in 2005.
The short railway – just 18 miles long and built in 16 months – boasted Victoria’s tightest railway curve and the maximum allowable speed was a mere 15 mph.
These days, Puffing Biily still attracts thousands of visitors a year.
I’ve admired this image for quite some time, finding it in the Library of Congress’ collection of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) color photographs.
It is anonymous, unfortunately, but since there were really only 23 or so staff photographers for this gigantic undertaking (including Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, ten of which are truly monumental names in the history of 20th century American photography.)
I think that we could guess that it was done by the hands of a master.
It seems as though less than 2% of the 163,000 or so photographs made by this section during its eight-year run (1937-1945) were made in color, and I’m glad that this was one of them.