2009 Conference: John B. Corns

The stories behind his railroad stories, with Kevin Keefe

CSX and Ohio Central trains, photo by John B. Corns
Photo © John B. Corns

“My photographic goal was to find that one, special spot that nobody thought of, and then put my combination of camera and lens there to make a striking image that nobody else obtained.” — John B. Corns

2009 Conference: John B. Corns

As a child in hometown Ironton, Ohio, John B. Corns fell in love with trains. His doting aunts used a Model A Tudor nicknamed the “Blue Goose” to pace alongside Norfolk & Western main line steam locomotives so that he could soak in the magic of those magnificent machines. He vividly remembers asking, “What’s THAT?” upon encountering the first “orange box” geep pulling a DT&I freight train, and can still feel the incredible tension that built up and sprang loose as attempted to hop the caboose of a passing DT&I freight train… when he was just 2-1/2.

As a high school student in Canton, John’s passion for steam led to overnight coach trips to Chicago via the Pennsylvania Railroad for main line Burlington and Grand Trunk excursions. If the Sunday-only steam excursion returned on time, a second all-nighter sitting up in a coach resulted in a Monday morning arrival just in time to get to school, usually with a soot-blackened face. A driver’s license allowed trips to tourist lines for living steam, and junk yards for rusting relics of a by-gone era. After a college class in black & white photography, John’s major and life path abruptly changed from history teacher to photographer. He had a creative eye and was hooked. After all, it was on the genes: his father had been a sports writer and newspaper photographer; his mother a writer and photographer for an employee magazine.

After college John worked as a commercial/industrial photographer, wielding a variety of cameras from diminutive 35mm SLRs to giant 8×10 view cameras as he taught himself the craft of photography. He also used an 8×10 cold light enlarger rolling back and forth on floor-mounted rails to project negative images onto a wall to make photographic prints measuring up to 8 by 10 feet. In his spare time John made train photos, lots of train photos, mostly of his beloved steam locomotives. Always taking the less traveled path, John developed a passion for the “old” Wheeling & Lake Erie, a nearly forgotten but interesting Ohio coal-hauler that he has written about in two books and scores of magazine articles.

After working ten years John realized his life-long wish of becoming a photographer for a Class I railroad. In 1981 his dream career began with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, part of the Chessie System Railroads headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1986 he transferred to Chessie successor and company parent, CSX Corporation, managing the department that provided most of the corporate photography for the many business units owned by transportation giant CSX. These included railroads, inland waterway barges, air cargo logistics services, around-the-world container shipping, over-the-road highway trucking, intermodal transloading, corporate aircraft fixed-base operations, and resort hotels, including The Greenbrier.

On every assignment John brought together natural talents and education to form a unique vision of transportation photography. John sees the mundane through different eyes and, using a variety of lenses from unusual angles, positions his camera where many dare not venture, resulting in creative images that continually pushed the envelope of railroad photography. Health issues forced his leaving photography for a desk job at the Ohio Central Railroad, now part of Genesee & Wyoming, Inc.