Capturing the Moment: More Powerful than a Locomotive

March 14, 2013

We’ve all been in the situation when we see something happening and wish we had a camera to take a photograph. 

These days, with digital phones, more often than not we do. Back in the analogue era, however, when cameras were not so ubiquitous, and film had to be loaded before shots were taken, there were many instances when we sighed, “if only I had my camera.” 

As a press photographer, you learn, by such moments, to carry a camera with film in your car. Memorable images result from being in the right place at the right time. Luck is a factor, but so too are being prepared, having a good eye, and the willingness to drop everything to attend to the opportunity at hand. 

I wish I had a dollar for every time I said to myself, “I’ll come back and photograph that later.” Too often, later never comes. The shot that seemed so obvious an opportunity will be absent upon returning. The light has changed, a critical element has moved, the opportunity is lost.

What if you knew an event of photographic significance was going to take place and you had time to prepare for it? You’d think this would make everything simpler. But what if the event in question would be happening in just a few seconds and then be over? Sunrises are like this; it’s important to be in place before the light is actually showing. Anticipating the event and being in a good location is vital in achieving the desired result.

I had a similar situation in July, 1989, when The Herald learned that Amtrak passenger service between Montreal and New York was to be restored, daily bringing the Montrealer through the White River Valley. The paper was still named The White River Valley Herald then; it seemed an event too worthy to pass up. 

Adding to the excitement, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and other dignitaries would be climbing aboard for the White River Junction to Montpelier leg of the journey. I had to get the shot.

In considering the Herald readership towns along the route, I knew that my window of opportunity lay somewhere between Sharon to the south and Braintree to the north. Seeking a memorable image location, I decided upon the truss bridge, spanning the White River at the north edge of Bethel village just across from Bethel Mills.

The day before the train came through, I visited the site to prepare. When the time came I wanted to be ready, for there would be no second chance. My plan was to climb the open iron of a truss at the end of the bridge, photographing with a five-frame-per-second motor-driven Nikon F camera as the train came hurtling below me. I knew it would be moving fast, perhaps fifty miles an hour. At that speed it would approach the bridge at almost 100 feet per second. 

Pacing the tracks, I calculated that less than 10 seconds would elapse between my first glimpse and the train’s passing below me. My subject wouldn’t be sitting still for this portrait; it would be in a good photographic location for less than a second. 

Most folks didn’t have cell phones in 1989, I certainly didn’t. Yet, it was important to stay in close contact with the White River Junction station to make sure I was at the bridge in time for the shot. I left from Randolph for Bethel as the train arrived in White River, knowing that a short stop was planned for brief speech-making and boarding.

It seemed an hour passed as I waited in my perch above the tracks for the train to arrive. Then I heard a whistle, and the Montrealer swung around the bend to the south, a silver blur heading right for me. In the moments that followed I have a recollection of gripping the bridge with my knees and right arm. The camera, snugged in my left hand by the tightened strap, was trained on the tracks below. 

A 24mm wide-angle lens provided great depth of field; the speed was set at 1000 to insure that motion wouldn’t destroy the image. Then the engine was upon me. The noise was deafening, violent vibrations shook the bridge, hot wind whipped all around. (This was a complete surprise; apparently, the engine’s exhaust discharges from the roof which roared by barely seven feet from my left thigh.)

I have a vague recollection of the engineer waving. Looking back over my shoulder to the north I saw dignitaries on a platform at the rear of the last car. Then, everything was quiet. Still. It was over.

Dazed, I climbed down from the truss. I was totally overwhelmed. I felt like an idiot for having climbed up there; but was grateful I had done it and was thankful I had made careful preparations a day in advance. 

Nonetheless, I wasn’t even sure I had the shot. Everything had happened too quickly for me to know.          

Only upon developing the film did I learn I had the image. I printed the single good frame for the paper. In the frame preceding, the train can hardly be discerned; in the one following there is nothing but blurred roof. In my photograph I could see a small American flag flying from the front of the train, a detail missed in the act of shooting.

Had I not climbed the Bethel bridge on Monday, July 17, 1989, this photograph, entitled, “Back on Track,” wouldn’t have run on the front page that Thursday. This unique moment would have been lost. 

Sometimes it’s like that. Two days of planning are required for a split second photographic opportunity. Was it worth it? Would I do it again? Well, everything changes. I’m now 62, not 38. The tracks have just this year been made longer, straighter, much faster. So, the photograph today would be altogether different. As I said earlier, seldom can you go back and get a shot you didn’t take when you first had the opportunity. 

I will admit this much, however. If I were 38 again, and Amtrak was reinstating an overnight train run to Washington, D.C., I would grab this image again in a heartbeat. And that’s all the time I’d have!

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