Crozet Calendar Clinic: Sheila Madison

Sheila Madison’s photograph was featured in the 2010 Crozet calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

“Look for S curves,” my father gently told me when I asked him what to look for when making a photograph. He was a high school teacher who advised our school’s camera club. I was 12 and new to photography. I wanted to know how to “see” photographically and peppered my dad with questions. His answers were succinct—like the one about ’S’ curves. But he was right: I hadn’t noticed S curves before; now they were everywhere.

I’m reminded of that exchange by Sheila Madison’s strongly composed photograph of empty coal cars winding up the ’S’ curve of the Afton rail line. Her story of making the picture also rings distant bells. 

“I was living in Afton in 2009 and traveled the Mountain Road many times, crossing over the bridge that spans the train tracks at the post office. This morning there was a snow delay for opening the elementary school where I worked. I could take my time. When I got to the bridge, I saw the train was stopped. I parked nearby, grabbed my camera and walked to the center of the bridge where I was directly over the line of cars.

“The morning was perfect. The sun was lighting up some portions of the snowy scene and not others. And I loved the way the rail cars followed the serpentine line of the tracks around the curve. I shot the scene in color and later converted it to black and white because it seemed more dramatic in those tones.”

Sheila’s story is complete if it ends right there. She had the full photographic experience: She had allowed the world to stop her, then she’d taken a strong stance above her subject. She’d seen the sunlight work its wonders and absorbed the pictorial beauty of the S curve. Later she made the creative decision to render the scene in black and white. Episode over. 

Except there’s more…

“I entered the photograph in the Albemarle County Fair in August, 2009. It won first place and I was encouraged to enter it in the Virginia State Fair photography competition that September. When my family and I arrived at the photography section of the fair we couldn’t find my photo. I started thinking, ‘Wow. What if no one liked my picture and it didn’t even get put out?’ So I asked a woman if there was another location for photography. She said, ‘Did you check the glass case where the Best of Show photos are?’ We walked over to the case. There was my photo with a big purple ribbon for Best of Show for Black and White. I was so stunned, excited and proud in that moment. That feeling stayed with me a long time.”

Sheila’s story resonates with me. In 1959 I made a black and white photo of my dad watching a train depart from a snow-covered station. I entered it in the National High School Photo Contest. Grand Prize was $500. My picture won the $25 Honorable Mention award. But like Sheila, I was proud in that moment. And, like Shelia’s photograph, my image has had a long life. Many knowledgeable people consider it my finest photograph. (Viewable at

Sheila also began photographing at an early age. “I’ve had a camera in my hands since the age of 12. I started with an old Polaroid and one of the 110 film cameras. I took candid photos of family members and of everyday things around me—the family pets, the occasional trip to the zoo, my young baby brother with SpaghettiOs all over his face. I spent every penny on Polaroid cartridges and film development. Later my husband introduced me to his Canon AE-1 35mm camera. Fast forward to 2008, when I finally bought my first digital camera—an Olympus E 410 with standard lenses. This is the point when I stopped shooting on automatic and started using manual mode. That digital camera helped me learn photography. I had instant feedback and could see what manually changing the settings could do to an image. This is when I started to grow as a photographer.

“I’ve been told by many people that I have a good eye, which I’ve tried to develop on my own over the years. I never use Photoshop; don’t even own it. I use minor edits only. In my mind, if one’s photograph gets a heavy makeover, the original image is lost. You end up with something entirely different.

“My dream job used to be wanting to be a Nat Geo photographer. I wonder though…if I had to do it as a job would I love photography as much as I do as a hobby? Who knows?”

Sheila’s website,  A Stable Life Photography: Sheila is on Facebook at: A Stable Life Equine and Pet Photography. 


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