Seeing without filters

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Over at the Model Railroad Design blog, guest author Gerard J Fitzgerald has written another terrific blog post about historical modelling and the role that photographs play in that. In his conclusion, he notes:

History makes less sense if one cherry picks or filters culture through a cheesecloth.

I read this last night, and it’s still resonating with me this morning.

As prototype modellers, the value of what we do increases when we move away from re-creating what we think was, or what might have been, to replicating simply what was.

Making that transition requires training oneself to make careful observations. Modellers I know who have trained as artists talk about “learning to see” – it’s a recurring theme expressed by Mike Cougill in his series of electronic publications called The Missing Conversation, but others have also discussed it at length.

Photographers do this too: My friend Don Spiro often describes his craft to me not in terms of subject matter but in terms of seeing light – and this is evident in the images he captures. As a result, I’m trying to train myself to see my layout in terms of light, too…
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I’m neither a painter nor a professional photographer, so my ability to “see” is not as finely honed. But I’m working on it – and when my eye tells me that I’ve failed to capture what was, I’m not afraid to tear out and re-work parts of my railway or start over on a modelling project, regardless of the amount of work that has gone into it.

In fact, I relish such opportunities to do things better the next time around because the hobby is not only about finishing the project, but also enjoying and learning from the process.

Thanks again, Gerard, for making me think about this hobby in a new way…

What makes Gerard’s blog post doubly delightful is that he brought to my attention the term Digital Humanities – as well a new online resource for period photographs. Photogrammer is a tool for searching some 170,000 images captured for the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information in the 1935-45 time frame.

Even though I model a Canadian railroad set approximately a decade later, I’m certain to find interesting visual details that – if nothing else – will prompt me to ponder how these items appeared in the geographical and temporal location I’m modelling.

At the very least, I’ll be able to spend several pleasant hours looking at wonderful old photographs.

7 thoughts on “Seeing without filters

  1. Trevor,

    Yes, the art of “observation” is an important skill to develop. Takes time. One trick, recommended by Mike Blazek is to place a piece of tracing picture over a photo and trace everything, you will start to see the details in the pictures. From that, you start to see the details in life when observing the 12″=1ft railroad at work, or merely photographing a scene. Finding the lines of an old building in the updated version, etc.

    Have fun on your journey.

  2. Artists use line and shapes to move the eye around a painting, with color and light for emphasis. The strong light on the end of the van draws the eye to the crewman and that part of the image. It’s the strong contrast of the light versus the relative darkness of the surrounding areas that give the image its power.


    • Agreed, Mike – and that may be one reason why those with an artistic sensibility can often effectively express it through a model railway. After all, our model railways are full of lines that move the eye around the scene – most notably, the rails themselves.

      This is especially true of ballasted and weathered track, I think, because with everything else muted the tops of the rails – which remain polished – become definite lines that pick up the light.

      At least, that’s how it works for me…


  3. Trevor,

    I am very thankful for even more of your laudatory comments. Wow. No cheesecloth for you sir! Also thanks for getting out more word on the Yale site as I think other modelers will find the new platform very helpful. Finally it goes without saying I found “Seeing Without Filters” to be a simply marvelous piece, especially with all the great model photos. How we “see” the past is of course dependent on our own unique and individual vantage point in time and space as people, but the more we stop and think about how we approach the past, even by example, as to how we approach unpacking the deep history embedded in a single photograph, the more we will hopefully move closer to being better model railroaders.


  4. Thanks for the link to Yale: I learned quite a lot clicking through a couple of sets of photos.

    The photo of the yard at the top of your post is interesting. Notice the neatness of the ballast, and lack of “clutter”: no stray ties awaiting track repairs. Many modellers would add extra detail to a yard scene, but all we see here is ballast level with the tops of the ties, and well maintained track. Not first rate – the ties are obviously old, but things are in good order. Why? Because it is a working yard, and stray ties are a tip hazard for railroad staff (especially in the dark) and derailments interrupt the efficient operations of the yard, delaying business and ousting money.

    Sometimes, seeing more means seeing less…

  5. Great post. The photos from Yale are amazing. I’m modeling in the 1980s but there still a lot to see that is of value. Everything we do now is rooted in the past. Plus it’s just fascinating to look at.

    Simon, interesting point about the first photo of the yard. That’s one aspect of learning how to see, sharing can accelerate the process.

    Finally, seeing without filters is a noble endeavor, and one I think we should strive for, but ultimately impossible. But it is the striving to overcome the impossible that is interesting. The great art historian Robert Hughes once said “A museum cannot hold all of culture no more than a zoo can contain all of nature.” So it is with our models, we can’t possibly model everything, so we “filter”. And that’s where it gets interesting. What I believe we don’t want is to be lazy in the process and that’s where all the ” looking” and”seeing” comes in.

    Thanks Trevor

  6. The lead photo alone evokes so many thousands of words in my mind. Just a few observations here. The freight cars in the distance and the state of the track are equally worthy of study. Not in your image here, Trevor, but apparent when following the link to it, is the track nearest the photographer in the original FSA image. That track is laid with hewn or flatted two side ties rather than cut ties. This was so common in the era that most of us choose to model. Many of these ties are crooked and lack even tieplates. Cinder ballast everywhere, but smoothened by train crews’ walking back and forth beside the lead in the course of kicking cars and throwing switches. Notice the difference in textures.

    The switchman is wearing his pant legs tucked into his boots so as not to snag them on hazards which the railway abounds in. He is wearing a denim smock type jacket that was such common wear amongst railroaders years ago for a number of reasons. I’ve owned a few denim and cotton duck versions myself. Very comfortable, with lots of room for paperwork. His overalls are not to look “railroady”, but rather cover clothes that one wants to keep railway grime off of.. By the way, his posture while throwing that switch would incur the wrath of supervisors today.

    The tie tops at the switch points are a bit darker, noticeable on the points away from the lead. Sectionmen greased and oiled switch points to make things easier for train crews. That oil has over time run out onto the tie tops

    These is so much information in just this one photo for the modeller.

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