North Dakotan portrays prairie states’ evolution and railroads.
Winter sunrise over the grain elevator in Kensal, North Dakota.
The railroad arrived in 1892 in the settlement that would become Kensal, North Dakota, in Stutsman county, about 100 miles west-northwest of Fargo. When the town incorporated in 1907, the comings and goings of the Soo Line trains were highlights of the day. While freight traffic still remains vitally important on the Kensal line, the passenger trains vanished by the early 1960s. Yet for at least one of Kensal’s 161 residents, Lewis Ableidinger, a railroad photographer whose surname (pronounced “Ab-lie-ding’-er”) reflects the largely Germanic origins of the area’s population, the comings and goings of those freight trains were still the day’s main attractions.
A young Lewis Ableidinger enjoying his Brio train in March 1986. Photo by Kent Ableidinger.
“It seems like the love of trains is somewhat innate,” said Lewis’s mother, Lyla Ableidinger. “Whenever the train came through, even as a baby, he would get excited.”
Kent Ableidinger, who farms and sells seed, remembers his son’s very early fascination with the mechanical railroad crossing gates in Kensal and how he kept returning to that crossing once he was old enough to ride a bike. For Lewis, the real treat was when one train stopped to wait for another to pass. “They [the railroad] had a siding in Kensal they used quite frequently,” he explained, “so [I’d] go ride around town and wait for a train to come, maybe see a meet there.”
Regular crews on the route soon grew accustomed to seeing the boy on his bike. His father said, “If they were waiting on the siding for a train sometimes they’d come in [to the cafe] and get something to eat, and they’d comment about, ‘oh yeah, we see him down there on his bicycle all the time.’ I think they got to know him just from him sitting there.”
There were few alternatives for boyhood entertainment. Ableidinger’s graduating high school class consisted of seven students, including a Hungarian exchange student, and the school had to join forces with others in the area to field sizeable enough athletic teams. Yet in Kensal the railroad called only to Lewis.
“There were no railfans to speak of in North Dakota,” he said. He relied mainly on books and magazines, starting with Trains. It gave him the idea to photograph trains himself, a pursuit he began around the time he entered high school, using his father’s Yashica FX-3 35mm camera. “[I had been] watching trains ever since I was little, and at some point I got the idea to just take pictures of them.”
Branching Out in Adolescence
Not that his development as a railroad photographer occurred entirely within a vacuum. His parents made a point taking him to train-related attractions whenever the family traveled, and his father even developed his own interest in collecting Soo Line memorabilia. Encouraged by his parents, Lewis also took up model railroading at a young age (he published a short article in Model Railroader about his layout at age 14, not telling his parents until the magazine arrived), and he discovered the Teen Association of Model Railroaders (TAMR) through magazine ads. His involvement in the TAMR led to travel to both regional and national meetings, and Lewis twice hosted visiting groups at his home.
“He got acquainted with kids from different parts of the country,” Kent Ableidinger said. “I think that teenage model railroad association was pretty good for [Lewis] . . . because he got to meet a lot of like-minded kids.”
The organization also provided Lewis with early opportunities for photography. As his mother explained, “Model railroading was the thing that brought them together, but when you got together, there wasn’t a lot to do, especially as a teen, in that field. So then they started doing photography as an extension of that.”
Finally, near the end of high school in 1999, Lewis met Nick Olek, of Glyndon, Minnesota, “about the only other railfan I knew of in a 200-mile radius.”
In the meantime, he was discovering the works of such notable railroad photographers as Richard Steinheimer and Ted Benson, which led to early growth in his photography. He also looked beyond the railroad photography community to the works of National Geographic’s Richard Olsinius and David Plowden, who both had considered the grain elevators and landscapes of North Dakota and surrounding prairie states worthy of serious artistic attention. Plowden, of course, got his start in photography with steam locomotives, but Lewis admits, “at first, I didn’t even know he’d shot any railroad stuff. I was mostly interested in his [photos of] small towns and prairies.”
College and the New Topographics
Ableidinger’s “Illinois Landscape,” made near Verona in October 2009, shows influences of the New Topographics photography movement, which he studied extensively in college. Click for larger version.
Attending college at Minnesota State University just across the North Dakota border in Moorhead broadened Ableidinger’s pantheon of photographic influences. He majored in graphic communications, which included photography classes taught by Wayne Gudmundson, a longtime photographer of the North Dakota prairies. In addition to learning more about black-and-white printing and having access to the school’s darkroom facilities (complemented by his purchase of a Bronica ETRS medium format camera), Ableidinger started gaining new perspectives on railroad photography under Gudmundson’s tutelage. In his documentary photography class, Lewis often photographed railroad subjects and was intrigued by Gudmundson’s differences in taste compared to the railroad magazines’ preferences.
“North of Valley City,” an example of the New Topographics style by Wayne Gudmundson.
Lewis explains, “At that time, a lot of the photos I was interested in are kind of the types of photos you’d see in Trains magazine, pretty standard, mainstream-type photos,” like wedge shots and emphasis on equipment. “He [Gudmundson] would be more interested in, like a night shot of just some coal cars parked on this spur to [the] University. Not even so much that, but just the way the track would curve in there. For somebody who primarily goes off of what’s printed in Trains or some of these magazines, this would be kind of a mundane picture, but to him it was a lot more interesting than just a side shot of some engines (laughs).”
Gudmundson speaks of photographs as things that you “put together,” and he talks with knowledgeable ease about the history and the impacts of the railroads in the region. He first met Lewis not through photography, but through music, as Lewis is also a gifted pianist who ultimately spent an extra year and a half at Moorhead to complete a second degree in music. The topic often emerges when Gudmundson describes Ableidinger’s photography.
“He has a very good eye, and he’s just so quietly driven. . . . He’s got this sort of musical sensibility, and he’s got this sort of ‘renaissance farm kid’ sensibility.”
“Medora,” an example of the New Topographics style by Wayne Gudmundson.
Gudmundson was involved in the New Topographics, a photographic movement that began in the 1970s and espoused less romanticized interpretations of landscapes in photographs. Among its leading proponents was Gudmundson’s friend Frank Gohlke, who has taught photography at a number of New England universities and received two Guggenheim fellowships. Gohlke spent a week as a guest instructor with Ableidinger’s class, culminating in a full day of making photographs at Cooperstown, North Dakota, with students in tow.
Already in high school, Lewis had begun photographing small towns and prairie landscapes, and he continues to expand his work on these subjects. The influence of the New Topographics is especially apparent in his townscapes and landscapes, but the movement’s aesthetics also show up in Ableidinger’s railroad photographs.
As Gudmundson explained, “There’s a sense of organization and a compositional, visual democracy if you will, where everything is equal.”
Gudmundson went on to say about Lewis, “In a funny way, I don’t think I’m stretching it by saying there’s a sense of musical order to his work. . . . .And I think with his humility, and his quiet confidence, that he was able to . . . embrace New Topographic notions of, that [everything you see is] all important stuff, and now let’s just deal with these seemingly insignificant things out there and put them into this rectangle in a way that has some respect for space, for open space, and I always thought too that . . . he was able to put these photographs onto the landscape . . . and that’s unusual.”
Working for the Railroad
Ableidinger graduated from Minnesota State in 2007. Despite his extensive training in the visual and performing arts, he then followed his friend Nick Olek to work as a conductor with the Canadian Pacific in March 2008, a decision that he did not exactly plan, but was certainly not a surprise to him.
“I was never completely sure if I was going to work for [the] railroad or do something else. Just kinda whatever came along, and railroad came along, so I decided to do that.”
One of his early runs took him right through his hometown of Kensal, along the very tracks where he once eagerly awaited trains as a boy. After a year with the CP, he moved to Wisconsin to work for the Wisconsin & Southern. While he endured a long layoff there because of the recession, he has recently returned to work, and along the way he had no problem filling his extra time with more photography. Working for the railroad has also changed the way he approaches it with his camera.
“I’ve kinda become less concerned about what power’s on a train, or how clean it is, or if the door’s open. . . . [c]ertainly since working for the railroad, I really haven’t been concerned [with those things], because that’s just the way the railroad is. . . . [N]ow I have a pretty good understanding of why power isn’t always matched, certainly why the door’s opened when it’s 100 degrees outside.
“Too, I’ve become more interested in railroads and their environment, whether it’s running along a river. . . . through what most people would consider unpicturesque, flat plains, trying to figure out how to put the train in its place.”
Lewis Ableidinger in April 2010. Photo by Matt Heeren.
An understated young man of few words, Ableidinger lights up at the mention of change in the prairie, especially what he has witnessed since his childhood. “Now, getting 15, almost 20 years later, you really notice what’s changed. When I was growing up in my town, we had a cafe, bank, elevator, grocery store, and a beauty salon in the grocery store. Now, the only things left are the cafe and elevator. I mean the buildings are still there, but they’re empty.”
As it has been from the beginning, the railroad remains inextricably tied to the fortunes of North Dakota and the prairie states, and Lewis has witnessed plenty of change along the rails, too. “In ‘92, ‘93, there was quite a few more branch lines that were in place, and a lot of them have since been removed, and a couple have been handed over to short lines.
“You really notice depopulation from the rural areas to cities like Fargo and Bismarck, probably even more so than outmigration.”
Focusing his photographic efforts on a 200-mile radius of home, Lewis captures the essence of these changes in his photographs. With vision tempered by the changes he has witnessed personally, he seeks out what remains, and one can only wonder how much of that will be left in another 15 or 20 years. Regardless, it is very likely, even natural, that he will continue to explore the railroad and its surroundings with his cameras.
“He’s very much driven by his own compass,” Gudmundson said, “and he just so happens to be passionately in love with anything to do with railroads.”
— Scott Lothes, April 2010
See more of Lew’s work at flickr.com/kindoflew.