In early 2021, I took an online photography class called The History of Photography.  For the last lesson of the class, I had my choice of assignments in order to complete the lesson.  I chose to interview a modern-day photographer, and that modern-day photographer was Jim Pearson, of Jim Pearson Photography.

 Jim is one of the USA's premier railroad photographers, and he graciously accepted my request to be interviewed.  We spent almost two hours talking!  The interview was an absolute blast, and I'm still utterly fascinated by what I learned about Jim, his life, and his love of rail photography.

Below is a transcript of the interview I conducted with Jim, edited for content and clarity.  I hope you'll take the time to sit back and enjoy the stories and lessons Jim shared with me that day.

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Jim Pearson
Jim Pearson Photography
www.jimpearsonphotography.com

INTERVIEW WITH JIM PEARSON
JUNE 2, 2021
No portion of this interview transcript may be reproduced, copied, or published in any form without the prior written permission of Brian Tomcik.

BT = Brian Tomcik
JP = Jim Pearson

BT  Well, first of all, thank you very much for being willing to do this for me. I appreciate your time.

JP  Sure, no problem. Yeah.

BT  I wanted to start off just to find out a little bit more about you, if that's OK. So, you live in Madisonville, Kentucky, is that right?

JP  Well, actually, I live in Richland, Kentucky. Madisonville is the closest post office, so it's a Madisonville street address. Out about six miles out of Madisonville.

BT  And I saw on Facebook you just celebrated your 71st birthday, right? Well, my son celebrated his 14th birthday on the same day too, so you guys share a birthday. I thought that was pretty cool.

JP  Oh yeah? Another Gemini.

BT  Have you lived in Kentucky your entire life? Were you born in Richland?

JP  I was born in Piqua, Ohio, and I've always kind of attributed that to my fascination with trains, because even though I probably don't really remember it, we lived about a block from the steam train line - there was a steam train line just down the street. I'm sure my mom and dad probably took me down there. We moved from there to Madisonville, Kentucky, when I was about a year and a half, two years old, and I spent my life there until I graduated high school in Madisonville. When I graduated high school in 1971, I went to join the Air Force, and then that's where my true experience began. I should mention that my uncle, Wilard Moore, was yardmaster at that time - the Louisville & Nashville Railroad's Atkinson Yard was here in Madisonville. While I don't remember him ever taking me out there, that's my only true connection that I can remember to a railroader in our family. But I've always kind of had a fascination with trains, and we had a depot here in town which still exists. I don't really remember any passenger trains coming in and out of there, but I know they did, because the last one through Madisonville was in the early ‘60's, and I would have been about ten or twelve years old at that time. But as far as railroad recollections and where my fascination with trains came from, those would probably be some of the points where it started brewing in the background if you know what I mean.

The true fascination came after I joined the Air Force, and I was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. I was stationed at Rheinmain Air Base, which no longer exists, and I lived in a small community called Morfelden, Germany. I lived there for three years and I met up with a good friend of mine whose name is Norman Grant, and he was really into trains as well, and so was his whole family, two sons and his wife. We used to railfan together down at the main train station, the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. We used to love to go out and stand on the end of the platforms and photograph things out in the yard and stuff coming in and out, taking trains. You know, I rode the train everywhere in Europe whenever I was living there. Trains in Germany were a way of life and you can set your watch by them. That was probably where I really kind of got into photographing trains as much as I do nowadays.

BT  What year did you join the Air Force?

JP  I joined the Air Force June or July of 1971.

BT  You were in there for how many years?

JP  24 years.

BT  Well, thank you very much for your service, I appreciate that.

JP  I appreciate it. I retired as a master sergeant.

BT  On your website it says you were a photojournalist for the Air Force as a member of Combat Camera. What was the purpose of that group and exactly what did you do for that?

JP  First, I'll tell a little bit about how I got there. I went into the Air Force and I was told at the time I enlisted that I could be a photographer, anything I wanted to be, so I selected photography. When I got to basic training, they said, well, there's no openings in the school for photographers. So, you had to pick something else. Of course, back then, the recruiter told you what you wanted to hear, needless to say. The last two years of my time in high school, I had met up with a friend of mine who is one of my first mentors in life - his name was Lowell Mendyk, and he was a photographer for the local paper here called, "The Messenger," and he kind of took me under his wing because I had this interest in photography. As a result, during my junior and senior year in high school, he let me tag along with him, showing me and teaching me. I asked is there any way I could be a photographer? And they (USAF) said, well, we have a bypass test; if you can pass the test with knowledge of photography, then we will allow you to bypass the technical school and you can become a photographer. So, thanks to the knowledge that I had gained in the last two years of high school from Lowell, I was able to pass that test without any problem. I went directly into the Air Force as a beginning photographer, journeyman, whatever you want to call it, I don't remember what they called it back then. I went from basic training to my first assignment in Florida, to Eglin Air Force Base; it was a field called Hurlbert Field number nine, which is Eglin auxiliary field nine.

From there, I was assigned as a base photographer. A base photographer basically just photographs and does things on his own base; he doesn't travel; he doesn't do anything other than what's on his own, wherever he's assigned to. And that's what I did in Florida on my first assignment. Of course, I've always had this fascination, so I always got my pictures in the base newspaper. I'd go out and shoot off duty. Lowell had told me, whatever you do in life, make sure you do something that's fun because if it's fun, you'll never work a day in your life. Well, photography for me had always been fun; it never seemed like a job, and to this day it still is that way. I attribute my fascination and love with photography with having a job or a career most of my life that was fun. It wasn't work to me for the most part - sure, there are always times where everything feels like work.

Then from there I was sent to my first overseas assignment, which was Kunsan, South Korea, as another base photographer. After serving a year there, I came back to the States to Patrick Air Force Base (Florida), again as a base photographer. There I met a friend of mine, a lifelong friend of mine, and I guess he's pretty much another mentor in my life. His name's José Lopez Jr.. He and I basically bounced around the Air Force together for the rest of our careers, one of us following the other, and vice versa. And when I was at Patrick, I got my first backseat airplane ride in the Air Force, which was an OV-10, a forward air controller aircraft. I flew the back seat in the prop plane and shot pictures out of that. That was totally fascinating and got me hooked on doing that kind of thing.

Jose was the one that put me on to what was then called the photojournalism program - it's still called the photojournalism program today, but he's the one that told me about it, and he and I both decided to put in for it. And what it is, to become a photojournalist, you basically get what they call an SEI, which is a "special experience identifier" that identifies you as a photojournalist. And every year the Air Force holds a competition where you submit a portfolio, you submit performance reviews from the military, your bosses, and letters of recommendation and all that. At that time, Ken Hackman, who was my major mentor in the Air Force and in life, was in charge of the Air Force photojournalism program, and he was a part of what was then the Aerospace Audiovisual Service, which would become today's Combat Camera. So, I submitted a portfolio one year – ‘76 is when I submitted it and I got selected. I was one out of 26 people that submitted and they selected five. Based on my portfolio and all the letters and all that, I was selected to attend Syracuse University for a year graduate course in photojournalism. My class had a total of 26 people, five or six from each branch of the service, and one from the Coast Guard. Basically, it was a one-year intensive course, photojournalism, basically all the technical courses you would need to complete a four-year degree in one year. I went up to Syracuse in ‘77 and attended from ‘77 to ‘78, and graduated from that, and my first assignment as a photojournalist in the Aerospace Audiovisual Service/Combat Camera was to Frankfurt, Germany, at Rheinmain. That location was referred to as Detachment 3 of the 1361st Aerospace Audiovisual Service.

At that time, my job as a photojournalist was to pretty much do very little on the base I was assigned to, and our assignments were travel assignments with TDY, "temporary duty." We would travel basically the globe photographing anything and everything associated with the military, not just the Air Force. We photographed for the Army, some for the Navy, but the Navy had their own photojournalists, but they didn't use them like the Air Force did. The Air Force really used our photojournalists as photojournalists, and a lot of time the other branches used them (their own photojournalists) and sent them back to their old assignments, and they pretty much stayed on the same base, or the same ship, or whatever. But the Air Force actually sent us on assignments to other locations to photograph things that were happening and going on. Because of that experience, the advanced training we had, we could basically go out and photograph and write stories - we basically did the job of two people. With the enhanced training in photography and journalism and everything else, we came back with better results.

My three years at Germany, I pretty much traveled all of Northern Africa and the Middle East on assignments. When I was on my first assignment as a photojournalist at Rheinmain, I photographed the return of the Iran hostages. I think it was Carter (former President Jimmy Carter) that went to the Berlin Wall - I covered his visit to that. And many, many other activities that occurred during the 1978-1981 time-frame in Europe and so forth. And while I'm thinking about it, in my 24 years of service, I basically was on photographic assignment in over 66 countries. It allowed me the opportunity to travel.

While I was stationed at the Air Force, I had the dubious pleasure of being ran over by a 747 and living to tell about it. The way this happened is because of extreme wide-angle lenses. That's one of the hazards of photographing. Rheinmain had a dual runway system, and one runway was shared with the German airport, the flughafen, but it was also shared with the military operations. There was a 747 cargo plane taking off on our side of the runway and it lost its nose gear and it skidded to a stop. It didn't hurt the crew or anything like that, the nose gear just collapsed. The Air Force got involved since it was over on our side, and they took out a huge military flatbed vehicle out there, and the nose of the 747 was jacked up and attached to this flatbed. Well, when this started happening, our unit got involved to document what was going on, because the images we shot throughout the Air Force were used to brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders at the Pentagon and D.C., and the President. We also had motion picture people assigned to our unit and they would film as well, and they basically got involved to follow this airplane back over to the German side of the airport to a hangar. Myself and several other members of our unit were assigned to follow the operation and photograph it from start to finish.

Well, I'd been out there all day long, it started early in the morning for all of us, and it was raining, drizzly, cold, and by the time we reached over to the hangar or got close to the hangar, it was about six o'clock in the evening and the airport lights came on and it got kind of dusky where you got that golden light. It's just beautiful light, you know. And I as a photojournalist was really getting into the light. A 747 - most people don't realize it is totally different from military aircraft, and the fact that most military aircraft do not have wheels under the wings, they're all underneath the fuselage. As an unfamiliar aircraft, you're not used to being around them. I had stopped and switched out to an 18mm lens because there were nice leading, long lines going down to the nose of the aircraft. The flatbed truck with the cab and the nose of the airplane, and the leading lines of the wing were all in silhouette, and it made for this beautiful shot. So, I put on this 18mm lens and I had my camera bag over my right shoulder, and I stooped down on one knee to photograph this leading edge of the wing, and the people walking - because they had walkers all around it that were watching the operation, making sure everything was going all right. Without noticing that there was a landing gear wheel sneaking up on me to the right, it grabbed my camera bag and then it ran over the toe of my boot. I kept pushing myself away from the wheel because it wasn't caught really, it was the bulge of the tire. But still it was the wheel, and as I kept pushing myself away from the wheel, and the camera bag was strapped over my shoulder, it kept pulling me in. Eventually, of course, I screamed quite loudly. Everybody came running because they saw what was happening. In trying to pull my hand out, it smashed my hand and also dislocated three or four fingers, fractured my kneecap, and traumatized the leg to where I had what they called a fasciotomy, where they had to relieve the pressure. But they got me away from the wheel, got me disconnected, and by the grace of God, the German doctor that was assigned to airport duty that night was a hand specialist by profession. He was a general doctor, but he specialized in hands. My flight glove was on, to help keep everything intact. Because of that and him being there knowing what to do, I still have pretty much total use - I have one finger that's fused that won't bend, but I was in good enough condition after what he was able to do in emergency surgery and later on doing follow-up surgeries, that I was able to stay on active duty in the Air Force.

Unfortunately, I couldn't be on flight status anymore because I didn't have a full range of motion in my hand. That prevented me from flying in terms of flying other than as a passenger. Another backseat ride in a fighter jet was also in Germany, during the first testing of the F-16 fighter and Arctic conditions in Norway. I flew in the back seat of the Norwegian F-104 to photograph the F-16 over the fjords of Norway. That was actually my last back seat ride because of my accident with the 747.

Needless to say, I survived it and that was my closest call with anything that I would call hazardous duty. I served during Vietnam, but I never went to Vietnam; I was in Korea when Vietnam ended. I served during Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, but I was never in any of the conflict zones where I was shot at or had to do anything what I would consider to be dangerous. I had other people and friends in my that unit did. Once I got further up in rank, while I was more of a manager, I still went on assignments, but I also oversaw groups of people instead of just myself and maybe one other person, motion picture guy or whatever.

The other thing that I'm kind of proud of during my military service is our unit was the first unit in the military, and probably in civilian life, that used digital cameras. We used the very first Kodak/Nikon digital camera that Nikon introduced. Our unit, Combat Camera, was assigned to test and evaluate the first digital cameras, so we used the Nikon - it was a Nikon body with a huge hard-drive attached to it that would hold a whopping 28MB of storage. And it had a big, huge kind of like a battery case that you would carry over your shoulder, and it was tethered to the Nikon with this special package on the bottom of it that would allow the digital captures and so forth. I think it was a Nikon D100.

Then we also tested and evaluated a camera by Sony, which was called the Sony Mavica. It would store images on floppy disk, but the quality between the Sony camera and the Nikon was like night and day. Nikon images were so much better, even though at that time, they were like a 1.2MP (mega-pixel) camera. The Sony was even less than that. But over the years, we continued to test and evaluate, and in fact, the Air Force started the very first electronic imaging centers in the military. Towards the end of my career in the Air Force, I was in charge of the electronic imaging center at Norton Air Force Base (California), which was the headquarters for Combat Camera at that time. Norton no longer exists, it's one of the ones they closed down during the base realignment stage.

That was the other thing I did while I was in the Air Force, towards my latter part of the career that I'm proud of - that I was instrumental in helping test and evaluate the first digital cameras that were ever created. The digital cameras made our job so much easier in the Air Force. We were able to photograph things and send the pictures back digitally, whereas before we'd go someplace and we'd have to - for instance, during one of my assignments, I flew with an Air Force KC-10, which was a refueling tanker, as it took a Chinese performing troop back to China. We flew along to document the whole thing and the Air Force crew touring around in China. We went to the Great Wall of China and Mao's tomb. But what I'm getting at is then we had to shoot film, and then I had to go back to the hotel and in the hotel's bathroom, I'd process the film, the black and white images, at least, in the bathtub and in the sink. Then I'd have to make a print, and back then we had an Associated Press drum transmitter, which was a device where you could attach an 8x10 print to, and then via phone line, you could transmit a photograph electronically over phone lines, back to a receiver on the other end, the Pentagon. I'd come back at the hotel at night and process pictures and pick out one or two to transmit back to the Joint Combat Camera Center and the Pentagon. Then these pictures would be used to brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff and so forth on what was going on. That's how we sent our pictures in the early days. I guess in a sense that was digital, but only in the transmission part, not in the shooting part. And we did that probably during the Iran hostage release. We did that probably up until sometime in the mid ‘80s, whenever the digital cameras we were testing started to be used. And then we could in a rudimentary way, we could email - back then, email wasn't the same as it is now, but we could still send a JPEG. But that was another part that I thought was important in my photographic history.

BT  What cameras did you use prior to the digital age; what type of models did you use?

JP  I used Nikons, Nikon FTN's, Nikon F2's, Nikon F3's, and I think the F3 was the last one we used until we started using the Nikon digital cameras. I can't remember what the model numbers were on all the digital cameras that we first started out using; I know one was a D100.

BT  What's your current setup now?

JP  Currently I use a Nikon D800, and then I use a Fuji X-T1.

BT  And what kind of lenses to you have? I know that you have a 150-600mm because I saw on one of your photos recently that you had that long lens.

JP  There's the Sigma 150-600mm with a 1.4x teleconverter that I use frequently because I like long lens stuff. I have a 14mm, but it's an off-brand, it's an excellent lens. I have a 24-70mm Sigma. I have a Nikon 70-300mm, a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 for low light stuff. I have a Nikon 10-20mm. I have a Fuji 35-55mm, and 70-230mm zoom lens for it. I really don't use the Fuji as much as I thought I would, it's mirrorless, and I thought, I'll jump on the mirrorless wagon and see what it's about. And while it's nice, and I do use it whenever I'll travel around cities and just want a camera to carry over my shoulder instead of the whole bag; I'll usually carry the mirrorless. I go up to Chicago to visit my niece and railfan up there, and when I'm riding the subway or the L and shooting downtown, I usually take my Fuji with me. I'm considering getting it converted to infrared though, because I'm kind of getting into infrared photography. Nobody's doing that in railway photography and I think I'm going to try to get into it. It's kind of cumbersome the way I'm doing it because I'm using filters. When using filters to do rail photography, the trains pretty much have to be sitting still. The filters cut down the exposure so much that you're talking seconds, instead of your normal 1/250th, you're talking like two or three seconds. By getting it converted it'll work like just a regular camera.

BT  Once you got out of the Air Force, where did you end up then?

JP  I came home, because of my job in the Air Force I traveled everywhere, and home was where I wanted to be. When I took vacation in the Air Force, I never went anywhere except home. Home's where the family is; I never got married, so this is where all my nieces and nephews are. It's where I came back to - Madisonville. When I got back here, my early mentor in life, Lowell Mendyk, still worked at the newspaper here, and I found out that he had an opening coming up, so I applied for it. Six months later, I was leading their conversion to digital for the newspaper. Because of my experience in the military and digital photography, that's one of the reasons they brought me on. I was instrumental in taking "The Messenger" newspaper then into the digital age. We started doing desktop publishing, whereas before we did cut up and paste up layout, and now we took them into the age where they were using computers to layout the paper. And the same thing with shooting pictures for the paper, we went from film to digital cameras. I pretty much took them into the digital age; I was their photographer/electronic imaging/networking guy. In civilian life, just like in the military life, you wear a lot of different hats if you work for an employer. I did that for 17 years until I finally reached the ripe old age of 65, could draw Social Security, and I said, ok I'm going to retire and do what I want to do, which is chase trains and photograph trains. And that's what I've been doing since I retired from the newspaper.

BT  Are you out photographing every day for trains?

JP  I typically am trackside just about every day somewhere. The Paducah & Louisville railway runs right within a stone's throw of my house, and I bought this property to build this house for that specific reason. It's on top of the hill, so I look over the valley and the train tracks. People say, why did you build a house right next to the railroad? I said, there's a railroad down there? I never noticed (laughing). But they said, well, doesn't the horn wake you up? I said, no - once you get used to trains and horns, it's just like traffic in the city or on a military installation with jet planes taking off and landing all the time, you get to the point where you don't notice it as much and you just kind of tune it out. Now, of course, for me, if a train goes by, I look out the windows and make sure it's nothing unusual that I want to chase. Madisonville has a major CSX line, the Henderson Subdivision that runs between Nashville (Tennessee) and Evansville (Indiana). Actually, the line comes from Jacksonville (Florida), goes all the way up to Chicago (Illinois). It gets on average between 20 and 30 trains, maybe 35 a day. It's a very active subdivision. I have friends up and down the lines in both directions now and on the P&L. Thanks to Facebook, we have message groups about heads-up, so we give each other heads-up about trains that are traveling up and down the line, things that are interesting and so forth. As a result of that and listening to a scanner here in the house and in the car, I keep track of what's going on with both lines. Anything interesting that comes along that's different, I get out and photograph them specifically. And of course, like everybody else that's a railfan, I go out chasing trains with friends.

A good friend of mine, Ryan Scott, that lives up in Indiana, and I railfan a lot together. We travel all the time and photograph trains and go on extended trips; we've got one coming up in November down to Strasburg (Pennsylvania). It is a nice place, I've been there once and I've been wanting to go back, and in November, they're having a steam operation where they're going to have a photo charter. We signed up for one of the days for the photo charter, and we're going to go to a couple other spots along the way to and from there. That'll be our first big trip since covid, that'll be our first overnight trip since covid, to railfan anyway.

I get out pretty much every day, even at the age of 71. I'm an avid walker. I try to get in 10,000 steps a day. I walk about four miles through downtown Madisonville, and I walk along the Henderson Subdivision, so you'll see pictures from time to time and live videos that I do along that walk. I do live videos from time to time on Facebook. It's an addiction, but it's an addiction that I love.

You really meet some great, wonderful people railfanning, in my opinion, and I always do it from a safe standpoint and vantage point. With my long lens, people say, you're awful close, and I said, no, you don't understand that's 600mm, I'm a half a mile away. That's what long lenses do for you; they allow you to get things into spots that you couldn't get otherwise, just like the drone that I've been flying here for the last six months. It gives me vantage points that I never dreamed of having except when I was in the Air Force and I could fly in a helicopter.

BT  Early on in your photographic career, were there other genres that you were interested in or was it pretty much it's trains and that's what I like to do?

JP  Obviously in the Air Force, I photographed all kinds of things, and I still do today. It's just that trains are my current addiction, that and my nieces and nephews, actually they're great-nieces and nephews, because all their siblings, all their parents grew up while was traveling the world. Now I take some of the younger ones with me, and they railfan with me occasionally. I haven't found one yet that is quite addicted like I am, but we go out and take pictures of trains and other things as well. I enjoy landscape photography. Obviously, when I was in the military and worked for the newspaper, I was heavy into photojournalism, photographs of people. The last thing I did in my newspaper career was I did a special thing that ended up being an exhibit for a gallery here in town at the fine arts center, and I called it, "One Hundred Veterans of Hopkins County." What I did over a period of months, I photographed 100 veterans in black and white that had served in the military, I shot portraits of all of them, and wrote biographies on each one of them about what they did while they were in service. Then this became an exhibit at the fine arts center out here in town. It was very well attended, and that was probably another highlight of my photographic career.

BT  Is there something about trains that sort of fascinates you? I mean, obviously there is, you do it a lot and you like it. Is there is there a way to describe what sort of makes you like the trains or railroad photography?

JP  Well, since most of my career was an industrial setting kind of thing, the Air Force - that's kind of industrial - trains kind of lends themselves to that as well. The transition from planes to trains wasn't too difficult, but it's just something about the industrial look of them that has always fascinated me. The massiveness and the power in the steam trains, the life that the engines seem to have, the breathing and the pulsating, it's almost like they have a heart. And that's kind of always drew me into photographing these massive machines over the years. I kind of feel like I approach photography on trains different than most people. I look at more of the aesthetic appeal. I always look for what I consider the best visual picture, not necessarily the best viewpoint that most people think a train would have. Most people think, oh, it's got to be correctly lit, it's got to be three-quarter profile from the front. Well, I'm sorry, I go with what I feel makes the best picture when I'm taking a picture, and I've always done that throughout my career. I think if people were to do that more, they would be a lot happier with their photography, to be honest with you. I photograph on the shady side, I photograph things that are backlit, and I break the rules because rules are made to be broken.

BT  Is there any sort of a message or a meaning that you're trying to convey through your photographs? Obviously, you're trying to get a good aesthetic, but is there...can trains convey any sort of a message to people, do you think?

JP  Well, power would be one of the things. I try not to just photograph the trains. I try to show the human side as well, because it's the railroaders that make the trains go. Without the railroaders, you wouldn't have trains. I don't know about other people, but I always am aware and conscious of the fact, though, that whenever I photograph railroaders that I have to be careful, because if I show something where a railroader is not doing something that's safe, I could get him in trouble. I try to always make sure that if I do post a picture or take a picture of a railroader, that they're doing everything and wearing everything that they should be. You won't see as many railroader shots that I do as you will train shots that I do. It's not that most of these guys are being unsafe or anything like that, it's just that I don't want to take a chance on getting anybody in any kind of trouble. Most railroaders that I've ever encountered are always conscientious and trying to work in safe environments, because these massive machines obviously can kill or maim you without any remorse at all.

BT  When you head out to a location to photograph, do you go out there with a set composition in mind or a photo in mind? Something like, oh, I want to get a train going around this curve and I want to capture it using my drone. Do you have that in your mind as you go out to a place, or do you just do it by the seat of your pants?

JP  Well, it's a combination of things. I do a lot of what people refer to as pre-visualization. When I go out to photograph, if I'm going to a certain spot to get a certain train that I know is coming, I think about that picture and what I want it to look like whenever I get done with the final picture. So, I do a lot of that, and I shoot with these pictures in the back of my mind of what I want to see. I try to shoot to where I can achieve that result once I get back in front of the computer, and I used to do the same thing in the darkroom. I do try to preconceive, see the pictures in my mind before I actually shoot them, and I try to make what I see in my mind come to pass. A lot of times I'll do that whenever I arrive some place I've never been. I'll see the scene, and I know there's a train coming, or I hope there's a train coming, and I will basically sit there and I'll have this picture in mind. Then once the train shows up, then that's what I shoot. Now, of course, there are times when there's spontaneity too, where I'll show up and the train will get there right away, and I just shoot. But even when I just shoot, I shoot with something in the back of my mind on how this is going to turn out whenever I get done processing it.

My boss said a long time ago, Ken Hackman - he said there's picture makers and there's picture takers. There are times when you need to be both. When I was a photojournalist, what I consider a true photojournalist, that worked for the newspaper, I was pretty much a picture taker. I didn't alter things. I didn't change things. I shot the scenes as they were happening. I didn't stage stuff; I didn't set stuff up. Well, even today, I still don't do that. But today I'm more of a picture maker because I set my scenes up before I shoot them, in my camera placement. I know which direction the train is going to be coming from - I preplan my composition. Then I know how I want the final picture to look whenever I edit it in the computer. I still shoot based on another Ken Hackman saying, and I'm sure other people have said it too - he said, when photographing a picture, if it doesn't contribute to the final image and what you want to say, then it shouldn't be in the picture. Either change your angle, get higher, get lower, zoom in, back up, whatever you need to do to achieve. So, pretty much everything that I shoot in camera, for the most part, when you see a picture of mine online, the framing is almost exactly how I shot it in the camera. The only thing that might be different is I might have cropped in a little bit, and that's about it. Because I shoot the way I want the final product to look as far as the framing and the composition goes.

You know as well as I do, when you photograph a location with a camera, if you just set everything on auto and allow the camera to do everything, it's going to look totally different than what your scene really looked like because cameras don't see the way your eye does. The eye sees so totally different, and it sees subtle shades and lights and darks, things the camera can't really capture on automatic or program. Everything I shoot, I shoot on manual, and everything in RAW. I seldom ever shoot JPEG. Now I shoot JPEG on the drone because the mode that I shoot in, it shoots JPEG and RAW. But whenever I get the images downloaded on my computer, I delete all the JPEG pictures; I don't ever use them. The RAW is the digital negative. If people aren't shooting in RAW and don't learn how to use RAW, they're not using the full capacity or the full capability of their sensor. Because when you shoot in RAW, it captured everything that that sensor can capture. And by doing so, you can bring out what you envisioned and what you actually saw at the time you shot the picture. But you have to know how to use RAW to do that. Now you can do it in JPEG, but it's a little bit more work.

BT  You said that you were possibly getting into infrared photography. Do you have a particular style that you use when photographing and making your final prints? For example, some people like to do a lot of HDR type of stuff. We sort of get that, I'm not sure how to describe the look, I don't want to say that it's a fake look, but it's a little off reality. Some people like a lot of grain. Do you have a particular style that you use most of the time?

JP  Well, I don't shoot HDR anymore. When HDR started coming out, I basically jumped on the bandwagon and I did HDR for a while, and then like you're saying, it didn't look real. But I got to the point where I could do it, where it looked pretty much real, because it's all in the settings and the finesse.

I took an online course in how to edit in RAW, probably about seven or eight years ago. It's through Creative Live, and the guy just opened my eyes to RAW photography. I can achieve so much more of what I want and the look that I like by doing it in RAW than I ever could in HDR. And it looks more real. I can even simulate HDR or give that HDR look from a single raw file, whereas in HDR, you have to shoot at least three images to get a true HDR image. I used to try shooting a seven image HDR so I could try to get it more realistic looking. But you can't really do HDR on a train unless it's sitting still. The look that I wanted for the trains, I wanted them to be under power, I wanted to see the smoke, I wanted to see the steam from the steam locomotives. Any time you're doing a multiple image kind of thing, it's really kind of hard unless they're sitting still. I like life in my pictures. A lot of times we'll pull up on location to photograph something, and I'll be with other friends and the engines will be tied down, just sitting there turned off. My least favorite thing is a dead engine, because there's no life to it, it's not moving. Static displays don't excite me; I want things that are alive. I want the rumble of the diesel, or the life of the steam, the breathing. I want to experience that, and I want to be able to try to convey that in my images. So, I did try the HDR. It lasted for a short time, but I moved on into RAW, and RAW is where it's at in my opinion.

BT  Are there other railway photographers that maybe have had an influence on your work?

JP  Yeah, some of the ones that I've kept up with over the years, I really like their work...some of the classic train photographers - David Plowden, Steve Schmollinger. Well, most all the famous rail photographers from the past have always kind of influenced me. I have books by them and I look at them and say, I like that – try to incorporate something like that in my images down the road. I would say there's not really one specific person in rail photography that has made a bigger influence on my life than any of the others.

BT  With train photography, there's a lot of photographs where you have the person standing to the side of the track and the train's coming towards them, and you get that shot where you have the head locomotive, and then you see the cars trailing off in the distance. There's a lot of those. I guess probably the best way to describe it is that this seems like it's a monotonous type of viewpoint. There are always people taking photos from that vantage point. With your drone photography, it seems like you're sort of breaking the mold on that a little bit. You're trying to get some different viewpoints with things.

JP  Yeah, I am, because I get tired of the same scene. I'm always trying to look for things that are different, and that's the key to good photography, try to find things that are different or unusual in your work. I try to do that. But unfortunately, trains come and go in the same direction - they're coming at you and they're going away from you. Unfortunately, you do kind of get redundant things sometimes, especially if you are trackside. It's kind of hard to get a lot of different angles. You can get high, you can get low, you can get three-quarters. You can get straight on and get going away, but even after a while, you start struggling for something that's different. That's what I always encourage to the younger folks. I said, you need to try to find something different; give your images a different look. Otherwise, they're going to look like everybody else's.

BT  Well, I think the drone photographs you've been taking, it's a different vantage point that certainly everyone doesn't get to see all the time.

JP  Even though it does have a tendency to make some things look like toys. But it's always been that way with aerial photography. I did that for the Air Force, the aerial photography, as a photojournalist. I shot air-to-ground stuff and air-to-air stuff. So now that I have my own drone, I wish I'd had something like a drone back in my day in the military.

BT  Where are your favorite places to photograph? Obviously, you're there by the Henderson Subdivision. Are there other places that you like to go to?

JP  Well, the places that I photographed that I'd wish to go back to - that's always a good indication when I want to go back to them. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico - that's probably one of the best steam operations for rail fans that I've ever been to. And I've been there a couple of times and I want to go back again. I really enjoy the mountainous railroading. I've never been to the Durango & Silverton (Colorado), I'd like to go there, I haven't been there yet, though. I always end up back at Chama. My bucket list for probably not this year, but next year will be the Nevada Northern. I've had a good friend that lives out in Colorado, Brian Burton. He goes to the Nevada Northern, and several other of my friends too, and it's another steam operation that I really feel like I need to get out and photograph. Living in California by some of my favorite places to photograph - Cajon Pass and Tehachapi Loop. I love both of those locations to photograph. I like to get back there, and I do get back there from time to time. Strasburg - I've only been there once but I've been wanting to get back, and that's coming up in November. So many places up in the Northeast that I haven't been that I'd like to go to. Made it to Steamtown (Pennsylvania), I'd like to get back up there. There are so many places that I haven't been to and I probably won't ever get to because there's not enough time, not enough money. Even though I'm retired, I still keep pretty busy on other things besides just photographing trains; even though my sister and others would say that's all I do is photograph trains.

BT  Is there a particular type of train that you like more than others? Do you like steam over diesel, or do you like GEVO's over SD's?

JP  Well, I like steam over everything, but unfortunately steam's not close enough to me to where I can get it on a regular basis. The closest steam operation to me probably would be the Kentucky Railway Museum, but their engine L&N #152 is down for overhaul, so they're not running steam right now. Chattanooga (Tennessee) would be the next closest place, and Ryan Scott and I are planning to probably make a trip down there sometime this summer to photograph #630 and the other Southern unit they've got down there. We've been down there several times, and we've covered most of the line, so it's kind of hard to garner the enthusiasm once you've shot a location once - well, I've done this, how can I do it different? Go back to that getting something different. But yeah, I would say steam mostly. I don't really - I know a lot of people get caught up in the SD40-3's, and the SD70-whatever. I don't do that. I'm in it for the aesthetics. A lot of times I don't even identify what type of locomotive it is, because invariably, I don't care what I put down, somebody is going to contradict it. I just don't know enough about them, to where I try to stay away from identifying them unless I have a friend that knows exactly what it is, and then I might post what it is.

BT  What challenges do you normally face when you're out there photographing? For example, do you have to walk through a lot of woods maybe to get a certain vantage point, or around some swampy areas, or something like that to get that view that someone else doesn't have?

JP  No, not really. I pretty much don't trespass at all. Now with the drone, I can shoot just about anywhere, but everything I shoot is from public property or crossings or on photo excursions. There's been occasions where I'd hike into private property with permission to get to a location. For the most part, I pretty much keep everything on public property, or if I'm invited on the railroad property. I do get invites from time to time from various employees of the railroad. In fact, the Paducah & Louisville Railway even hired me a few times to photograph some of their engines. Whenever they came out with the new paint jobs on their veterans units, they had me come down to Paducah (Kentucky) and photograph their veterans units for them. Same thing with P&L #4522, which was a 70MAC, it was painted with the University of Kentucky paint scheme. They have several of those but #4522 is the newest one, and it's to honor them and all their NCAA basketball wins. And there's one for the University of Louisville as well.

BT  How much editing do you do in your photos, how much post-processing do you do?

JP  Well, I don't know, it depends on the picture. A lot of times I try to shoot it and edit in the camera for how I want it to look by getting the exposure correct. A lot of times people will say, your stuff's underexposed. I said, well, it's underexposed because in RAW, if you underexpose you get detail in your highlights. By default, my camera on RAW is normally set to about one-third of a stop underexposed, if not seven-tenths of a stop underexposed. I expose for the highlights, that's how I'm able to get detail in the clouds and shadows. A RAW file has the ability to overcorrect or undercorrect by three stops. You can bring out a lot of detail in your shadows and your highlights that you couldn't bring out in the JPEG file.

95% of my post-processing is done in RAW. Sometimes I'll use a graduated filter, which is like what we used to use on the camera lens to darken the sky. Well, in RAW you have a setting where you can drag and bring down a graduated filter to darken and get that same effect. Instead of doing it with the filter, I do it in RAW, where I have more control. I'm able to bring up the shadows and bring down the highlights and make things look better, look more like I visualized it or pre-visualized it whenever I was shooting the picture. It goes back to that pre-visualization - what do you want this image to look like when you get done with it, making sure that you have the information and the detail in the file to be able to accomplish that. The last 5% I do in Photoshop, and may be things like selective dodging or burning, which I used to do in the darkroom all the time. Maybe taking out sensor dust and things like that. Most of my cloning and major removal of trash is done with feet on the ground. I'd go and take out the trash, and move it out of the scene before the train gets there. People say, well, how did you get in close? I said, I moved closer, as long as I do it safely, I get closer. If I don't have the zoom lens on, I move closer. I said, do it the old-fashioned way - if you don't have a zoom lens, get closer, back up, whatever. You don't rely just on the technology.

BT  So, you use Photoshop - do you use any other software, like Camera Raw or Capture One, or is it mostly just Photoshop?

JP  I use Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop. I do have Lightroom on my computer but I seldom use it. I grew up with Photoshop, I started using Photoshop in version 1 in the Air Force, when we were doing the digital imaging stuff. We started using Photoshop when it first came out, of course, then it was more for designers, but we started using it for imagery, and I've been using it ever since. I know all the tools and the ins and outs and what it can do and what it can't do. When they came out with Lightroom, it was designed more for the photographers, which would have been all well and good if I'd grown up with it, but I didn't grow up with it, so I've pretty much stuck with Photoshop. Lightroom is more for the younger photographers. I do use it occasionally, but more because somebody comes to me with a Lightroom question that I don't know the answer to, and I want to try to help them. I'll go into Lightroom and play around with it until I figure out what it is they're talking about, then give them advice as best I can. But Photoshop is pretty much my editing software of choice.

BT  How do you think social media has helped with your photography, if it has at all?

JP  Oh, yeah, it has. I get more exposure with my work. I can't believe my Facebook page has grown to over 19,000 subscribers and likes and followers. I must be doing something that people enjoy watching and seeing. Social media has allowed a broader reach for my photography, and the photography of everybody. As long as you're putting out photography that is interesting and different and good. There is a lot out there that is the same old, same old, you know, and well, that's fine. There's a lot of people that like seeing those shots, I'm just not one of them. I like things that are different. I've had a website since I can't remember.

BT  It's huge, you have so many photos, how do you keep it organized?

JP  I have categories. If you go up to the gallery part and you look at the galleries, each one of these galleries on my website, like aerial photography, is basically a category. When I post it to my main page on the website, I categorize it. I'll list it under aerial photography, which is my drone work, or Chicago area trains, and if you click on that, it'll take you to everything that's tagged for that location or that type of photography. It just helps keep things organized.

My sister and I, when I retired and she retired, we kind of started a web design business and hosting business. We did that for about eight or ten years and we kind of let it dwindle off now, but we would design websites for people because I've been doing it ever since I was probably in the Air Force. In fact, when I was in Combat Camera stationed at Norton Air Force Base, we had computers that sat in our office that we hardly ever used. This is before we started doing the electronic and digital imaging stuff. It had a 286 chip in it, and I think it was a Zenith computer, if I remember right. One was sitting in my office for six months to a year without hardly being turned on, and I looked over at it one day and I said, well, I guess it's not going anywhere. I started turning it on and started playing with it, learning how to use it, and doing things with it, and it just kind of all evolved from there. Then whenever the electronic imaging stuff started coming in, I'd kind of gotten everybody else up to speed with the computers at the office. One thing led to another, and that's where I'm at today.

BT  I wanted to ask you about three of your photos, because they "spoke" to me when I was looking through your photos on your website. I wanted to see if you could offer any insight to what you were thinking when you were taking the photos and so on. The first one is called "Coming Around the Bend." At first, I thought it was maybe at dawn and the sun's coming up and it's reflecting off the tracks. But then I see through the photo that it was actually at night and it's the train lights that are reflecting off the rails.

JP  That was at Evansville, Indiana, and it's a southbound train that was getting ready to come out of CSX's Howell Yard. It was a warm night and we'd had rain earlier, and that steam was rising above the tracks. I saw the reflections of the headlights, and I thought, well, you know, not every picture has to have the train in it. It goes back to that doing something different. I was using my 50mm f/1.4, so I was able to hand-hold this shot, I don't remember what the shutter speed was on this particular one, but it was probably around 1/60th of a second or maybe 1/250th. From time to time, I'll do art pieces and I'll label them as such because they are manipulated. And this one, I used a series of Topaz filters in Photoshop and I used Topaz Paint to apply the effect that I wanted to achieve here or that I like. A lot of times when it comes to an art piece, you just kind of play with it until you get something you like, and that's what I did on this particular shot. The non-art piece to me is just as dramatic as this one, it's just that I wanted to do something different and give it a little bit of an artsy look to it.

BT  There's no train in it, so you're sort of wondering what's coming down the track.

JP  All the reflection on the rails compounded with the steam coming up from the ground is one of the things that drew me. Ryan Scott, the friend up in Indiana, and I try to get out at least once a month to photograph at night. There are two things that a lot of people do that they shouldn't do - one is they put the camera away when it gets dark, and two, they don't go out when it's bad weather. Railroads run at night and they also run in bad weather, and there's great pictures to be had in both, but you got to get out the door. I carry a huge golf umbrella in my car, it's in there all the time. If I see something, I want something different and I know there's an unusual train coming, or maybe it has different power on it, or the weather is just right or there's clouds - I love clouds as long as there's definition in them. Solid overcast I don't love as much. Blue sky - I don't particularly care for just total blue sky. To me blue sky is boring, it's harder to get things to look right. The clouds for me give depth and definition to the picture and drama. I love the drama. Give me a stormy day with angry thunder clouds and you'll find me out trackside someplace. I love the dramatic look that you can get from that kind of weather. Get out the door.

BT  Another photo that I like, it's called "Doe Crossing." I saw that one and I actually smiled when I saw it. I guess you were just out there probably waiting for a train or something and all of a sudden...

JP  It's on the Paducah & Louisville Railway crossing. The train was coming and I was sitting there waiting on it at the crossing, and I had the long lens on, and I was just looking down the track, getting my framing and getting my position to where I wanted it, and the doe appeared out of the tree line. I said, she's going to go across the track, and said, she'd better make it before the train gets here. But at the same time, I thought it would be cool if the train was in the background, but that didn't happen. Because there's not a train, it goes back to the shining rails one - it's not always just about the train. It's about things that happen around the train tracks, too. I even started a group on Facebook called "Waiting on a Train," because we all shoot these pictures while we're waiting on trains and didn't have any place to put them. Now people have a place to post things like deer walking across the tracks, or cats walking on the rail, or whatever you shoot while you're waiting on a train. I shoot a lot of those because like everybody else, I get bored just sitting there waiting, so I look for things to shoot trackside.

BT  It's cool that the doe is looking right at you too. The mist adds a whole sort of aura of mystery to the photo too, behind the doe.

JP  It was early morning on summer day again. She heard me down there, or sensed me - I don't know which it was. Or maybe there was a car coming; I don't remember what it was, but she did turn her head and look towards me. I always think she was looking for the train, making sure there's no train coming, being safe.

BT  There was one more that I thought was pretty cool - it's called "CSX Q025" and it's a wintertime shot. It says it's around Morten's Gap, Kentucky, with engine #5272. It just sort of struck me on that one. I like the vignetting around it, and I like the treatment of the other colors on it. A lot of times you see some really bright colors on the front of the locomotive - the yellow can be oversaturated. That certainly isn't the case here, it's almost like the colors are muted in a way. I think that with the vignetting and emotion that you're getting with the snow blowing up...I just enjoyed how that was framed and how it looked.

JP  To me, that's what I refer to as in-your-face photography. It's just there, you know what to look at. Ever since I was in my early years of photography, I used to always burn down my corners because I learned a long time ago that your eye goes to the brightest part of the picture. Therefore, you want your picture to be toned in such a way to where your viewer's eye goes to the main subject of the picture, and that it keeps the eye on the subject of the picture and not let it wander off outside the frame. That to me is the mark of a good photograph. Even today, I use vignetting on a lot of my pictures where I try to keep the eye in the picture and not let it wander off. For most people it's a subconscious thing and they don't even realize it. But it is there, it does happen.

BT  Out of all the photographs that you have on your website, do you have a particular favorite of yours? I know there's like thousands of them, I don't know if it's possible to pick one.

JP  Oh, geez. I would say probably if I had to pick a favorite - November 13, 2019, was the day that I chased the Union Pacific #4014 Big Boy. It was my first time chasing this train, and probably my favorite picture in a long time is one that I shot of it where it was departing Prescott, Arkansas, and coming out of a cloud of steam.

But that's one of so many others, especially from this (shoot). I did a vertical of it also on the same day. I like verticals because verticals are something that most people today don't shoot. If you look on Facebook, the majority of everything you'll see is horizontal. People don't seem to think the camera turns sideways anymore, and I guess I'm guilty to some degree of that myself. But I'm always conscious of something that will make a good vertical. Even in my drone photography, I crop things vertically sometimes because for one thing, verticals take up more space. Whether displayed on video, on Facebook or other social media sites, they're bigger on the screens. At the same time, if you ever want to have a cover shot on a magazine, you need to shoot vertical. Or at least have it loose enough to where they could crop it as a vertical.

BT  I like how they wrote "Big Boy" on the front of the boiler.

JP  My favorite shoot in a long time is this movement of the Big Boy that I shot. I went up for a day and I chased it from Prescott into Little Rock, Arkansas, spent the night, and picked it up the next day. I kind of wish I'd chased it further out west because they got snow, and I'm envious of that because some of the photography I saw was just spectacular. I would say steam photos are probably some of my favorite rail photos that I've done, because steam is such a rare thing, at least for my area.

BT  Well, I’ve come to the end of my questions I had for you. Is there anything that you want to add that I didn't cover?

JP  Just to reiterate some of the things that I said, my advice to younger railfans is - think outside the box. It's an old adage, but it couldn't be any truer. Try to get things that are different in your photography. Doesn’t matter if it’s rail photography or what. Always look for that decisive moment that sets the picture apart from other pictures. Like if you photograph a steam locomotive, maybe when they're blowing the steam out the side of the engine, and you’ve got smoke coming out the top. Look for the moments that say this is different. Get out early, stay out late. Get out in bad weather, as well as in good weather. Pictures can be made at all times of the day and night in all kinds of weather. Always try to do something different in your photography and don't worry about it if it doesn't come out right. It's like anything else, everything takes time, your creativity will grow with time.

BT  This has been an hour and 45 minutes that we've been talking now. I’m inspired by your work. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

JP  Yeah, you're welcome. No problem.

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