On one particularly intense nine-day foray with friends in 1956, the itinerary stretched almost 2,600 miles with numerous stops to photograph trains in seven states and Canada.
Because he had always lived next door to Rensselaer, there was never any question where he would go to college. “Rensselaer was in my mind from my earliest days,” Shaughnessy says. “I looked to the north and that’s all I saw. I literally went through a hole in the fence to get onto the campus.” He enrolled at the Institute and graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1955.
“I always worked as a civil engineer,” Shaughnessy says, “and enjoyed it. Photography was a sideline, but I think being a civil engineer gave me some insight into the structure and order of things and I think it was a good background.”
In 1961 he married Carol MacNaughton and drew her into the rail world. (Their son, James D. Shaughnessy, graduated from Rensselaer in 1996 and is a professional engineer.) In the dedication to the book, he thanks Carol for having been “encouraging, tolerant, and proud of my accomplishments, as well as being a traveling companion on many expeditions to less-than-comfortable destinations.”
“There are many instances when I’ve gone out and failed to get a picture,” he says. “But I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity and impetus it gave me to go out and enjoy the countryside and to meet a lot of interesting peoplenot just kindred souls who are doing the same thing as you, but the people who are doing what you’re watching.”
It is not surprising that one of Shaughnessy’s signature contributions to railroad photography is his ability to humanize the world of massive machines. It would seem that for him, getting the photograph has been as importantand as much funas having a great portfolio. The camaraderie of chasing trains with friends and the pleasure of hanging around rail yards talking to workers are more than fond memories. They are the unseen ingredient of Shaughnessy’s masterful photographs.