This photo is a thing of wonder and beauty on two levels.
To start, anytime an old steam engine rides out of history into the present traffic stops. Railfans come from all over with their cameras to record the event.
Southern Pacific 4449 was built in 1941 and is the last operable streamlined Art Deco steam locomotive. The 110-foot-long GS-4 Northern engine was the pride of the Southern Pacific Daylight route and served as the star of many promotional photos and posters. It was hoped that the glamor of the design would lure people back to the railroad from their cars.
Steam was replaced by the less romantic diesel-electric power in the late 1950s and she was retired to static display. At the same time many jobs were lost in the region as the roundhouse in San Luis Obispo that did steam repair and maintenance was shut down.
A volunteer group formed to restore the engine and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation is working for a permanent home near Portland, Oregon. Too beautiful to send to the scrap yard, the steam engine lives on.
The second wonder is that this photo offers a masters class in photography. Early in my career Tony Hertz gave me a great piece of advice. He told me that in a feature situation, take all the time you need, scout locations, walk 360-degrees around the subject, try high and low vantage points, work to find the definitive perspective. This is especially true with wide angle lenses where a tilt of a few degrees or a movement of an inch or two will completely change the composition.
Most people take pictures from their standing perspective but here the perspective is not that of the over six foot Tony Hertz. The camera is almost resting in the water, angled upward capturing the reflection and the elegance and power of the steam engine. Our old Nikon-F cameras had a removable prism quickly converting the single lens reflex into a older style view camera. Looking down into the ground glass the image was flipped forcing you to look at large compositional shapes. It is an experience you don’t get with the mini-television screens on today’s digital camera backs. The guy at the right gives you a sense of scale and the star power of the locomotive.
Since leaving The Tribune, Tony has established a career in local photography and teaching.
UPDATE: I forgot to include the date the image was made: March, 8 1986. A few excerpts from the brief article that ran on an inside page on March 10…
About 200 people braved overcast skies to see the 432-ton steam locomotive pull out of town after an overnight stop….The train could be heard throughtout the area belching and hissing as it gathered speed down the tracks, just as it did years ago when it pulled the Coast Daylight.