Monday, January 10, 2011

Jim Boyd - Bringing Night Photography Out of the Dark

Steamtown U.S.A.; Riverside (Bellows Falls), Vermont; October 1979
Jim Boyd, former editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine, passed away on New Year's Eve 2010. It would probably be fair to say that no other single person influenced the railroad hobby as much as Jim did in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the magazine (which started in 1974) he shaped the rail enthusiast world by bringing steam trips and train chasing and numerous other aspects of the hobby into the mainstream. And while he didn't do anything groundbreaking, what he did do was make some of the mysteries of railroad photography available to the masses through his Camera Bag column and his group night photo sessions.

Ah, the group night photo session. For decades photographers have been taking pictures of trains after dark. And while people like O. Winston Link were doing it on a grand scale with dozens of flashbulbs lighting up entire towns in one big burst of light, there were people who were doing night photography on a smaller scale with maybe a single flash gun. Open flash photography (often called "painting with light") involved locking open the camera's shutter, loading a bulb into the flash gun, firing the flash at a point on the subject being photographed, ejecting the spent bulb, loading a new bulb, moving several feet along the subject and firing the flash at a different point on the subject. Eventually the entire locomotive would have had a flash on it and the shutter would be closed. Depending on the size of the subject and how fast the photographer could eject and reload bulbs, the shutter could be open for 30 seconds up to two minutes or more. And while Link was working with moving subjects that required synchronization to one camera, the static subjects of open flash could be captured by multiple cameras simultaneously.

Jim Boyd was not the first to do open flash photography. He probably wasn't the first to conduct a group night photo session. But in the 1970s his night photo sessions at Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia and Steamtown U.S.A. in Vermont (above) brought delightful results to groups that could include 100 or more photographers. The first group night photo session of Jim's that I attended was one at Steamtown. His night sessions soon became staples of the National Railway Historical Society's annual conventions. At the 1980 Convention in Toronto (the second one I attended) he did night sessions that included streetcars, Canadian Pacific diesels and GO Transit's commuter trains.

GO Transit; Mimico, Ontario; August 1980
Richmond Triple Crossing; Richmond, Virginia; July 1983
 Perhaps the most ambitious of the night photo sessions occurred at the NRHS Convention in Richmond, Virginia, in 1983. Richmond has the only "triple crossing" of three main line railroads in North America; at the time there was the Southern Railway at ground level, with Seaboard System above it and Chessie System above them all. Jim arranged for all three railroads to provide locomotives and short trains and he and his staff lit the entire scene for about 100 photographers. It will go down as one of the most classic open flash shots of all time. Today the Triple Crossing is still there, with Norfolk Southern on the bottom and CSX Transportation controlling the two elevated levels.

The 1991 NRHS Convention was in Huntington, West Virginia, and the night photo session had a new problem -- it was pouring rain. While the photo line was busy getting wet and trying to keep cameras dry, Jim (who was also an avid diver) simply put on a wetsuit so he could throw the flash in the storm. The session featured two large steam locomotives, Nickel Plate Road 765 and Pere Marquette 1225, two locomotives that would later star together 17 years later at Train Festival in Michigan in 2008.

Pere Marquette 1225 and Nickel Plate 765; Huntington, West Virginia; August 1991

If I recall correctly, Jim's last NRHS night session was at San Jose in 1992. By this time the flashbulbs that he used (large bulbs the size of a standard household lightbulb) were getting expensive -- if you could find them at all. Jim had shared his knowledge of how to conduct night photo sessions with a new generation, and these guys had adopted high-powered strobes to replace flashbulbs. Jim was perfectly happy to stand back and watch the next generation take over. Eventually I wound up conducting several night photo sessions for NRHS and other events. I still use the same commands Jim used -- "stand by" just before the shot is ready to be taken and "open 'em up" when the flash is ready to be thrown. Every time I yell "open 'em up" and here the clicks of dozens of shutters being tripped, I'll say a small thank you to Jim Boyd for sharing his knowledge that has let the photographers following him get the same kind of results that made Jim famous.


Craig Willett said...

Well said, Steve....Jim taught us young railfans from Dixon and Rockford how to do night photography, among the many other things he taught us. A true giant in the hobby, and most of all a true friend for over 50 years.

Unknown said...

I can remember Jim's anticipation of the arrival of the yellow boxes that contained the slides from the pouring rain night shots. He was thrilled at the result, since the rain drops cast little shadows and the open time was longer than he liked. Jim always claimed that the tradition of the group night shots began at Cass. Don Ball's help at Steamtown got live steam into the dead engines to create some of the most memorable images from Vermont. Those flashbulbs were No.2s, and I'll never forget the smell of them. I have one signed by Winston Link, and I wish now I had one signed by Jim.

Mike Del Vecchio

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