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In November, a pictorial book devoted exclusively to Shaughnessy’s work—The Call of Trains: Railroad Photographs by Jim Shaughnessy—was released by W.W. Norton & Company.

Other publishers had approached Shaughnessy earlier. But, perhaps because he was too close to the subject, he was unable to settle on an approach to best represent his own collection. It remained for his friend Jeff Brouws, a photographer and fellow “rail fan,” to bring the project to fruition and to write an engaging introductory essay that puts Shaughnessy’s work in biographical and historical context. Brouws went through Shaughnessy’s vast collection and picked 300 to 400 photographs. Then he and Shaughnessy worked to narrow down the selection. Brouws approaches photography as art, while Shaughnessy says he strives “to capture a very real picture of what I actually saw. Being a scientist and an engineer, I look at hard facts, indisputable facts.”

Working from these two perspectives, the men have assembled a striking collection of 170 black-and-white images taken between 1946 and 1988. Together the photographs capture Shaughnessy’s contributions to the development of railroad photography in America.

From the beginning, Shaughnessy’s work stood out. In the 1950s he was among a small group of photographers beginning to record the total rail environment and pushing the capabilities of their cameras to obtain original compositions. Shaughnessy’s images convey a keen appreciation of historical significance but they are devoid of sentimentality. His interest in mechanics led to striking close-ups, and his dramatic night portraits, often staged and painstakingly lit, became part of his signature style. His unusual angles made the viewer part of the action, and his inclusion of people broadened the scope of traditional rail photography. “This decision to place [people] within the context of the railroad landscape...became an important component of his emerging style,” Brouws wrote. “By seeing the railroad milieu as a social space, he humanized the industrial environment, exploring the relationships between the railroad and the people that interacted with it.”


Looking back, Shaughnessy cannot remember precisely how train photography took hold of his imagination. The love of machines and of trains was in his blood. His father, James A. Shaughnessy, was superintendent of buildings and grounds for St. Joseph’s Seminary on the southern edge of the Rensselaer campus, and the family lived in a small house on the seminary property. Helping his father maintain the boiler and steam plant that powered the facility, Shaughnessy developed a knowledge and admiration of mechanics that grew and evolved into a fascination with steam locomotion, as the pound and whistle of trains at Union Station just down the hill on Broadway could be heard across the seminary grounds.

Before Shaughnessy could drive, his parents encouraged his interest by taking him on countless day trips. While his mother sat in the car reading, father and son would explore railroad locations and talk to railroaders about their work. And the younger Shaughnessy would take pictures. Soon he joined local railroad clubs and other enthusiasts on trips and began establishing friendships with other rail fans.

While still in high school, he joined the Model Railroad Club at Rensselaer and became the “mascot” for a group of Rensselaer rail fans called the Boomers. Several of these friendships, which included Craig Woodworth ’53, Curt Law, and David Messer ’60, connected him to Rensselaer before he enrolled at the Institute.

Eventually those “rail fanning” trips, usually with fellow enthusiasts, would take him by car and train throughout New York state and New England, into Canada, the far West, Mexico, and the Midwest.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.