It’s the waning days of summer, but central Texas is still firmly in the clutches of the season as a high pressure system lies stationary over the region, funneling in warm, moist salt-laden air off of the Gulf of Mexico, making conditions right for suffocating temperatures and the formation of cumulus clouds at the lower reaches of the atmosphere. The southerly breezes gently sway the Johnson grasses at ground level, but at altitude the brisk winds aloft tear at the clouds, feathering them into thin and delicate wisps.

It is under these skies that, at 11:08 am on September 17th, 2017, Union Pacific’s C45AH number 2554 pilots a heavy westbound train of frac sand-laden AOKX 2-bay hoppers downgrade at the Valley Way road crossing near Reedville, Texas.

Later in the day, after the temperature has reach close to 95 degrees, this train will roll into Halliburton’s facility located inside Rail Logix’ sprawling Alamo Junction complex at Elmendorf, south of San Antonio, TX.

But here and now the two head-end units, plus the rear DPU utilize their dynamic braking as they ease the heavy train down into the Blanco River valley.

Photo by Rick Malo.

What has called us into the role of iconographer, cataloger of chosen moments in time?

Is it the familiarity with and passion for our chosen fields of photographic endeavor?  The recording of a subject so overwhelmingly present in the vanguard of our consciousness that we are driven to render it to digital immortality, or, as the old-schoolers will still have it, colloidal emulsion on the finest of paper? Say, perhaps, a train or a butterfly?

Is it the mastery of the technical aspect that we aspire to? Using our hard-won skills in the capturing of light and all its peculiarities via ISO and f-stop and, coupled with our own parameters that can be transmuted into an individualistic labelling called “style”, therefore producing a trove of visual treasures to occupy the eye for infinitum?

The utilitarian apparatus has come a long way since the great Fred Jukes, boomer railroader of the early-1900s and progenitor of the railway action shot, dragged his heavy box and tripod across the Great American West, recording fantastic images in grand crystal clarity of the Overland Limited at speed on the tangents just out of Elko, smoking up the vastness of the Nevada skies as the legendary train plied its trade across the immense expanse of stark beauty that the lonely high deserts provided for the transcontinental traveler. These were feats unheard of until his mastery of light and subject produced precision images that still, today, have the faithful perusing volumes inclusive of his iconic work. 

All in a world innocent of the terms “mega-pixel” and “jpeg.”

Here, using a multi-faceted, everyday device referenced to by the masses as a “cellphone,” and one that fits easily in the palm of one’s hand and can be comfortably stored in the back pocket of heavy denim dungarees, is an image recorded in color but, in deference to the great Mr. Jukes, electronically edited to black and white and residing in an electronic file that consist of 7.14 megabytes of digital information. 

On the gorgeous spring afternoon of Wednesday, March 21st, 2018, a long westbound merchandise freight is in the hole at Kingsbury, TX.

Of great interest to this author are the pair of standard-cab Norfolk Southern SD70s in charge of the tank cars and covered hoppers that originated from the chemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel.

Numbered 2579 and 2572, and originally built for Conrail in 1998, these twenty-year-old units show off their classic lines as they contrast with Union Pacific’s wide-cab SD70M 4583 at the rear of the motive power lash-up.

These Thoroughbred visitors are a welcome sight along the Sunset Route in south-central Texas, yet they, like the instrument used to record their presence, will eventually succumb to the inevitability of change.

I think Fred Jukes understood this.

So do I.

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