LensWork #42 Cover

The following article, in the form of an interview, appeared in the Aug/Sept, 2002 issue #42 of LensWork Magazine . The twelve plates published after the text of the article are shown in gallery format below. The interviewer, Brooks Jensen, is editor of LensWork



Born in Oakland, California, in 1948, Gordon Osmundson has remained in the East Bay Area for 53 years. Primarily a self-taught photographer, his formal education includes an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and a Master of Landscape Architecture, both from the University of California at Berkeley.

An early interest in model railroading led Osmundson to an interest in the real thing. Borrowing a camera from his father, he soon made his first black and white prints in his father's darkroom. In addition to a shared photographic interest, the two work together in their shared profession as landscape architects.

Describing himself as "Someone mechanically inclined; my interests are with machines and things industrial," Osmundson has "found that a photograph could be more thin a direct representation of its subject; it could also be a study in light and abstract form."

Osmundson lives in Oakland, California.


Brooks Jensen: Gordon, you are probably best known for your exquisite detail work with trains but I know you've done a lot of other work, too. You make your living as a landscape architect, but your first passion definitely is photography. How did you get interested in trains to begin with?

Gordon Osmundson: I think I was born with it. My Dad says that when I was a little boy he had to read the story of The Little Engine That Could to me over and over again. If he tried to change any of the words, I made him go back and correct it. We took trips down to the railroad tracks and saw the trains go by and things like that. Later I got interested in model railroading when I was in the seventh grade. Once I started that, I was hooked.

BJ: So have you ever worked in the transportation business - worked on a train? Or is it just a passion from the photographic sense?

GO: I did work for Pacific Fruit Express briefly, but that didn't work out too well. I'm not someone who can be a clerk in an office and be very happy at it.

BJ: It's interesting how many photographers find themselves enamored with some subject material and how that interest is translated into a motivation to represent that subject material in an art form. Others could easily be interested in trains their whole life and never want to pick up a camera and make a picture of one. In your case, your fascination lead to photography. How did that come about?

GO: My Dad is a photographer. We had a darkroom when I was growing up - my Dad still does have a darkroom. Photography was something that was always around. I forget who's idea it was for me to start taking pictures. Once I started with photography, though, I had to find out more and more about it.

BJ: When did you realize that photography - not just photographing trains - was going to be a passion?

GO: That came along a bit later. For about ten years, photography was an adjunct to my railroad enthusiasm. My Dad knew about Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and all those people, but I didn't know too much about them. He loaned me a couple of books, and I did some experimenting with black and white in his darkroom. Then, as a Christmas present in 1972, I received a copy of Ansel Adams' Camera and Lens. As soon as I started reading that I just realized that large format photography was something I had to do. I was just fascinated by how a view camera worked and by the Zone System.

BJ: Are you familiar with the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland?

GO: No, I've never seen that one.

BJ: It's a terrific book and one I recommend to everybody. They have an interesting theory about how people get involved in photography. They suggest that some people are involved in photography because they're really passionate about creating artwork; some people are involved in photography because they are really in love with the darkroom process -the chemistry and all that; some people are in love with photography because they're interested in seeing and exploring the world. It sounds to me like you are an interesting blend. You're fascinated with the trains, you're fascinated with the equipment and the technology, but you're also fascinated in the artwork and what it will produce.

Daylight GO: Actually, I'm interested in technology. Trains are just the thing that fascinate me the most. Photography is an interesting technology, too. I also have an interest in aircraft and automobiles and lots of other things - anything that's held together with nuts and bolts. I like to see how to take the nuts and bolts out and find out how things works. A number of things that are like that have turned into photography projects, not just the trains. As a matter of fact, my current project is automotive. My cars don't go to a shop; they get fixed in my driveway. Last summer my car needed a valve job. So, I pulled the head off and took it to a machine shop. When it came back, the thing was this absolute gorgeous jewel. It had been glass beaded, had new parts in it, and a bunch of machine work done on it. I was looking at it and suddenly I saw a picture in it. Well, a 500 sheet box of Tri-X and several months later, I was finally ready to put my car back together.

BJ: (Chuckling.) Speaking of subject matter, when you're photographing trains, for example, you have a built in audience for people who are going to appreciate your photography. You can simply show the resulting photographs to people who are interested in trains.

GO: True, but I'm really looking more towards an aesthetic experience. There is a great tradition of railroad photography, but most of it is a matter of photographing a train coming down the track. There is a lot of interest in what particular kind of train it is, where it is, etc. There is frequently a story to be told about any particular train. But the photographs I have done are different. I'm trying to tell the story of what a train is like to someone who is not as familiar with trains.

BJ: Speaking honestly, when I look at your work - particularly the photographs we're publishing here in LensWork - a lot of these could be something completely different than trains. I don't know that it would make any difference to my aesthetic appreciation of them if they were power plants or heavy machinery. I have to confess, I'm not passionate about trains the way you are. So, when I look O. Winston Link's train photographs, for example, I feel like I'm an outsider because I can't appreciate what I am seeing. In contrast, when I look at your train photographs, I get an aesthetic feel that is more akin to Charles Sheeler's industrial work, or even Lewis Hines' machines.

GO: I agree with you. I also have an affinity for Sheeler's work, and for the precisionist movement in modern art in general. I wasn't aware of that move

ment in art history until fairly recently, but once I learned about it, I found there some kindred spirits. For example, in doing my photography I found I was attracted to abstract form. This was something that came out of the pictures - not something that I started out looking for. This interest in the abstract form carries over into all my photographic work.

BJ: You're familiar with Paul Strand's work, for example, when he photographed movie cameras?

GO: You bet.

BJ: You are following in that tradition.

GO: Edward Weston did some work in this area, too.

BJ: The challenge is, of course, that it's not easy work to do.

GO: I disagree. I found that this kind of subject matter is easier to do than good landscape photographs.

BJ: But you're saying that from the perspective of someone that does it well!

GO: Perhaps. But I've done my share of landscapes, too, and good ones are few and far between. You have to keep searching and searching and searching for them. Whereas, with industrial things, once you're with good subject matter you just keep moving the camera and finding one more thing and one more thing. It just doesn't stop. These things already have form and structure to them. As a photographer, I'm merely exploring that form and structure and trying to work it into a composition. Because the structure is already there, it's not that hard to create a structured photograph. The landscape doesn't have that kind of structure - at least it's harder to find.

BJ: It's an interesting point you bring up. Maybe this really has to do with perspective. I can imagine that a lot of photographers would approach a train engine and think there's nothing to photograph - it's just so much machinery jumbled together and confusing. They might go to a landscape because it's so simple. Compositionally, the sky goes up there and the land goes down here.

GO: I guess I do have one advantage. I know what all the parts are, what they do, and how it all fits together.

BJ: This is where your years of fascination with trains helps you as an artist working with them. There is a payoff in creating art when we make art that reflects our non-art interests. A case can also be made that the task of an artist is to show the non-artist, how something is aesthetic. A lot of people would look at a train and just say it's a machine. To you it is clearly not just a machine. It's more than that.

GO: It's more than that, yes. It's history, it's work. I mean that in two different ways. It's the work that people have done to make it, and it's the work that it does. It's engineering and it's design. I'm fascinated by old machines as well as new ones. In the old machine there's an encapsulation of the technology of it's time. There is something of the texture and feeling of what life was like in those times. When you see the machine work, it all comes back to life.

BJ: When you approach a train, how do you start the process of turning what is essentially a giant machine into something that's a compact and visually understandable composition?

GO: Basically, I look for compositions within it. Sometimes I use a card with a whole cut in the middle of it to help frame a composition. Some people just hold their hands up, but I find a card is a more efficient way of doing it.

BJ: What is your normal print size for a final print?

GO: My normal size is 11x14", but I also do 16x20" and, the 8x10".

BJ: When you're going through that editing process, how do you determine which images survive to become finished exhibition prints and which ones get passed by?

GO: In the darkroom is when you want to be looking at your prints the most critically. I spend half the time in the darkroom with the light on, looking, analyzing what I've done. There are only two real variables working in the darkroom. Sure, there are subtle differences between papers and chemistry, but in essence you are working with exposure and contrast. That's all there is. But why do Ansel Adams' prints look like his do and most everybody else's don't?

BJ: You bring up a point. The difference between making a mediocre photograph and a good one has to do with how well your eye is developed - our ability to see not only what we're looking at but what could be seen if we did something differently with exposure and contrast.

GO: Essentially.

BJ: But, by the same token, that becomes our Achilles' heal. As photographers, our eyes are so subtly trained to see tones that we forget sometimes that other people literally can't see what we do. Their eyes have not been trained to recognize the subtle differences between a great photograph and a good photograph. This really became apparent to me when I had a gallery owner tell me that one of his biggest challenges in selling both silver and platinum work was that most visitors in his gallery couldn't tell the difference between them. To me this was shocking - a platinum print is a different color, has a different contrast ratio, a different D-max, and a different scale. Platinum and silver prints are as different as night and day. But, it's true; we photographers are the most qualified audience for our own work.

GO: I've found that showing my work to people becomes a test of the viewer. I've found that people who appreciate good photography are generally the ones who have a more well-developed sense not just of photographs, but a lot of other things.

BJ: So, should we photographers sweat blood over getting the finest nuances out of the photographs we make even though the unsophisticated eye can't see them? Clearly those of us who engage photography at a passionate level try to push the limits about how well we can make a photograph. But we are fussing over details and finesse that the vast majority of the people will never see. When do we stop? It's a conundrum for those of us who are trying to get the last little bit of nuance out of every single negative.

GO: I can say several things about that. First, GOOD ENOUGH ISN'T. The most critical eyes should be your own and if you can't satisfy your own eye, why are you doing this? When Beethoven wrote music it was thought that his musical tastes were rather low and poor. Today we recognize his greatness. I love the great symphonies. I think the only thing is to try to do the very best work we can. In the darkroom, there are those subtle differences that, when held next to each other, you can hardly tell one from another. But if you look at them closely, if you look at them separately, under good conditions where you can see them well, you'll notice that one sings and the other doesn't.

BJ: No question. You and I are in agreement here. My only point was that it takes a certain sophistication on the part of the viewer to be able to fully appreciate what they're looking at. This implies an even more interesting question: If it takes a sophisticated eye to be able to appreciate all the subtleties in your photographs, that also implies that as we each progress through our own career, as we get older and more experienced, we look back at our earlier work and see that it is not as sophisticated as we once thought that it was. Some of those prints we were really proud of five, ten, twenty years ago don't look quite as good now that we are no longer the photographer we were when we made them.

GO: I've been looking at some older prints in conjunction with getting an exhibition prepared. There is no question that I can definitely see an improvement in my printing. We've all probably thought we were the world greatest printer when we first started.

BJ: (Chuckling) Speak for yourself!

GO: When I first read Ansel Adams' books and learned about maximum black and maximum white I thought I had the path to the world's greatest prints. Later I began to get dissatisfied. I realized I had the ends of the scale down, but I really didn't have the middle of the scale very well yet. So I got better at printing the midtones and thought "well, now I've really arrived." Then I began to get more and more subtleties in my images. It's a never-ending process.

BJ: That's true.

GO: We all know when we're eating good food. But how many of us really understands the subtleties the chef knows in preparing it?

BJ: Yes, we all know when the food tastes good, but we can neither make it nor can we fully understand all the nuances of it. This leads directly to the frustration that so many photographers have when somebody looks at a piece of work and says "That looks great. I think I'll go make that picture myself."

GO: Well, when I hear that I just kind of shake my head.

BJ: I know, what else is there to do? But here's the point. Let's say someone walks up to a train with a 35mm camera and snaps off a picture. In their eyes, their result might be as good as your result because they don't have the ability to see the subtitles in your photograph. That's a frustration for those of us who are photographers, because it prevents us from really garnering the respect and the admiration of the public.

GO: I used to have a dog. He couldn't even recognize a picture as being a picture! So you have to remember that all of us bring our life experiences, not just in making photographs, but to viewing them. As fine art photographers, we really are making photographs for a sophisticated audience. Whether the guy flipping burgers can appreciate what I'm doing or not is not something that I spend my time thinking about. I just saw the current traveling Ansel Adams exhibit and John Szarkowski made a number of interesting points, one of the most important was that Ansel didn't make his photographs for us. He made them for himself. It was a way of him paying homage to his subject matter. I think that's a lot of what we're doing. We are really making photographs for ourselves and hoping that other people will recognize them as being something that was worthwhile seeing.

BJ: Every time I hear that kind of statement about Ansel Adams making his photographs for himself and not for us I immediately want to ask a question. Why, then, did he make 850 copies of Moonrise Over Hernandez?

GO: Well, that's easy. It helped him to make his house payments!

BJ: (Chuckling) You're right!

GO: There is something about getting recognition for what we're doing. I certainly like it. I'm sure all of us do.

BJ: You were talking earlier about Beethoven. It's amazing how many photographers are also musicians.

GO: I know, it's a funny thing. I've run into a number of photographers who are interested in the same four things: large format black and white photography, the great symphonies, steam locomotives and machine shop work - all four of those things!

BJ: Isn't that interesting! What do you suppose is the common thread?

GO: Well, note that they weren't jazz musicians and that they weren't doing some other kind of photography. I think of the kind of discipline required in large format black and white photography is parallel to that required in playing classical music. There is a tight discipline required to do it well. Not only that, but the actual structure of the work has a lot of similarities. The same kind of mental processes are involved; at least there are some strong parallels. The same can be said with the machine shop work. It involves the same kind of precision. The same kind of engineering thought goes into both of them. I suspect that people who have those same grooves in their cerebral cortex get involved in the same things. I've also noticed that there are certain objects that black and white photography responds well to - certain kinds of textures, shapes and forms. I notice that there is a parallel between what model railroaders like to model and what the California school of landscape photography likes to photograph. They are both interested in the same kind of weathered wood and buildings from around the turn-of-the-century, old brick buildings and wooden buildings and that kind of thing. There are just some common threads throughout all of that.

BJ: So now you've been doing this for thirty years.

GO: I started doing photography, as I say, shooting slides. I think that was 1963. I started with large format in 1973.

BJ: And now you've made thousands of exposures and hundreds of prints...

GO: ... thousands of prints ...

BJ: How's your level of satisfaction? Has the ride been worth the trip?

GO: Well the trip isn't over yet!

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