Crozet Calendar Clinic: Bryan Parsons

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Bryan Parsons’s photograph is featured in the 2020 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.

Trains and photography have a strongly mingled history. In America they grew up together and certain settlements became identified as “train towns.” Crozet was, and still is, one of those towns. Photographers found those towns, got to know the train timetables and staked out positions along the rails that provided the best vantage points for making successful images.

The attraction is twofold. Trains are visually dramatic and they can uniquely gratify the more tech-minded photographers—ultimate hardware meeting state-of-the-art software with, occasionally, memorable photographic results.

Even today it’s not uncommon to be a passenger on a moving train and see photographers strategically positioned along the rails waiting for the powerful presence of a train to come into view. One of them could be me—or, more likely, Bryan Parsons, who made this well-realized image of a CSX freight train and here relates the story of its creation:

“Trains are an integral part of the history of Crozet and an empty coal train is a common sight in this area. I wanted to photograph this particular train in a familiar context—steel bridge and river.”

But Bryan’s simply stated wish has a significant backstory that began 27 years ago: “The first time I photographed a train crossing this bridge was in October, 1993, when the Virginia Central steam train was running a scenic route from Charlottesville to Clifton Forge.

“Then, several weeks prior to making the CSX photograph I shot an Amtrak train crossing the bridge from the same spot. But I felt that a CSX train was a better subject for the statement I wanted to make. The Amtrak train would be my practice shot. Since taking the CSX photograph, I have also shot a Buckingham engine crossing the bridge from the opposite direction. The CSX image is still my favorite of the three.”

That story is characteristic of photographers devoted to depicting trains. It begins with a broad desire to make a certain kind of picture—in Bryan’s case of a train crossing a bridge crossing a river. But from there the detail gets finer and finer.

“Several weeks prior to making this image I again scouted the location on the Rt. 250 bridge over the Mechums River. I walked one side to the other checking various angles, focal lengths and framing options. I selected my spot. This is where I would stand to photograph my train. It would give me a centered view down the river, a clear view of the train and a full-on image of the bridge.

“The frequency of these CSX trains is unpredictable, so knowing exactly when a train might come through was not possible. And I couldn’t spend an entire day waiting.

“Fortunately, I work at Townside Center on Ivy Road along the main CSX route–a 16 minute drive from Crozet.

“On this particular afternoon when I first heard a train approaching it occurred to me this would be a good time to get my shot. I locked the door, jumped in the car (with camera gear already on board) and headed to Crozet. These trains are relatively slow so I got there with several minutes to spare—time enough to park, get my gear and get to my spot.

“There is no mistaking the sound of this train approaching; it was time to “assume the position.” I used a Nikon D600 DSLR with a Nikkor 28-300mm lens set at 28mm wide angle, vibration reduction on, ISO 800, f/3.5 aperture priority (to maximize shutter speed). I pre-focused on the railroad bridge, shutter set at burst mode and hand held the camera with both elbows firmly planted on the bridge’s concrete siding because there was no space for a tripod. As soon as the train came into view, I pressed the shutter and started shooting. The selected image was number 12 out of 29.

The story of the making of the CSX train photograph is but one chapter in Bryan’s extensive and dedicated life as a photographer.

“I take my camera wherever I go. I don’t always have the time to stop when I see an opportunity, but I’m always thinking about how a particular view, quality of light, weather condition, or unique feature might be captured in a photograph. I am first and foremost an outdoor photographer.”

In describing himself as a photographer, Bryan also summarizes the essential elements—train and bridge, river and forest—of his accomplished photograph: “I am most attracted to scenic landscapes with natural or manmade elements or a combination of both.”

Bryan’s favorite locations include downtown Crozet, Mint Springs Park, Chiles’ orchard, Greenwood, Rt. 810 between Crozet and White Hall, Beaver Creek reservoir, VDOT worker’s memorial overlook on I-64, and Skyline Drive.

Bryan Parson’s work is displayed at Bryan’s Photo Shop in Townside Center, on Ivy Road in Charlottesville. 

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