Trains and creativity run in the family of native New Jerseyan
Nick D’Amato’s first exposure to railroad photography came at the tender age of one month, when his parents took him from their home in Blairstown, New Jersey, on a trip to see the last run of the GG1 electric locomotives at South Amboy, which his father photographed. Nick was making his own railroad photographs before his fifth birthday, when he was invited to spend a day with his dad riding in the locomotive cab with the crew of the Middletown and New Jersey Railroad in Middletown, New York.
Trains run in the D’Amato (dee-uh-MAH-toe) family. Nick’s grandfather, William D’Amato, grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey, during the Great Depression, two doors down from the New York & Long Branch Railroad’s Branchport station, where watching trains offered free and fascinating entertainment, although his family lacked the money for train rides, let alone a camera. Nick’s father, Chris D’Amato, recalls about his father, “When he got in the Army in 1945, suddenly he’s on a troop train going across the country and that, to him, was this amazing adventure….I used to like to hear those stories.”
Chris grew up with toy and model trains, and seeing restored Nickel Plate Road steam locomotive no. 759 passing through Beacon, New York, on its way to Promontory, Utah, in 1969 began his lifelong interest in railroad photography. Chris’s interests and career path eventually took him to Carstens Publications in Newton, New Jersey, which publishes railroad books and magazines. He began writing for Railfan magazine in 1977 and joined the staff of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine in 1981.
Given his father’s influence, it’s little wonder that Nick gravitated towards railroad photography so quickly. Yet the D’Amato family has also sought balanced interests, and that balance may explain why Nick has never burned out on trains despite nearly constant exposure, and why he brings so much perspective to the way he photographs them today.
During family vacations when Nick and his younger brother Anthony were growing up, their father said, “We’d do some train stuff, but we’d always do other stuff, too.” While Nick quickly took to his father’s interests in trains and photography, Anthony pursued music and writing as his creative outlets (which he successfully continues to this day). Those family trips typically included local cultural attractions and points of interest, as well as the family’s other main passions of baseball and music, in particular the New York Mets and Bruce Springsteen, respectively.
Just as Springsteen’s music has focused on the lives and stories of blue-collar, working-class America, D’Amato family vacations during Nick’s childhood often sought out the country’s industrial heritage. As Nick&rdsquo;s father explained, “We never went to Disney World, but we did take them to see the last steel pour at Bethlehem Steel, logging on Vancouver Island, the electrics at Mason City, iron ore railroading in Minnesota, and they [Nick and Anthony] watched slag being dumped at Inco’s Copper Cliff plant from on the top of the slag heap. So, they’ve seen a more working, ‘real’ America.”
“There’s a lot of history that you can see while you’re railfanning,” he continued. “A lot of little places we’ve been to, that you’ll see in the news one day, and think, ‘Oh wow, we were there. We saw such and such there.’ It’s a good way to see the country.”
“I’ve always had a camera…and that’s certainly my father’s doing,” Nick said of his early interest in photography. Chris D’Amato taught Nick the basics of exposure and composition on a Honeywell Pentax H1a, although Nick mainly used automatic point-and-shoot cameras when he was young. He also “helped” his father develop film and make prints in the family darkroom, and while he remembers little of the process, he would like to go back and re-learn the basics of black-and-white printing. As a child and teenager, however, Nick did not know anyone his own age who shared an interest in trains or photography.
Despite his father’s encouragement, Nick says, “I never took [photography] very seriously until I got a digital camera,” the first of which came during his senior year at Princeton University (where he majored in microbiology). Nick credits his rapid growth to his photographic background combined with digital technology’s capabilities to “see results right away” and “more easily get critical feedback” via online photo-sharing sites and discussion boards.
Early tutelage in digital photography came from Google searches and through feedback from online communities. Nick related one story in particular. “I took some really crummy photographs on one trip, and I came back thinking, ‘Man my lens is soft, what’s wrong with my camera?’ … On the railpictures forum…they basically, correctly told me, ‘You gotta learn what shutter speed to use…and really think about what you’re doing.’ And so that’s when I started looking for photography forums to…really get a firm understanding of the basics.”
That episode led Nick to sites such as nikonians.org, fredmiranda.com, and nikoncafe.com. While the online feedback and advice was useful, Nick soon found himself wanting more. “They were very helpful at first, but then, maybe you outgrow them a little bit, and that’s where joining a local photography club…has been helpful.” Now a Ph.D. student in Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, Nick joined the Capital City Camera Club in nearby Raleigh where he enjoys the chance to continue learning through in-person discussions with other photographers.
Buoyed by his background and the wealth of photography resources available through the Internet and his father’s library, Nick learned quickly once he became more serious about photography. Many of his best pictures are grounded by strong foregrounds, a natural offshoot of his preference for wide-angle lenses. After getting his first Nikon digital SLR and “kit” lens, his next addition was not the big telephoto zoom that so many photographers buy as their second lens, but an ultrawide Tokina 11-16.
“I’ve always been especially drawn to my wide angle lens,” D’Amato said, “and obviously making an effective photograph with a wide angle lens involves being close to something, and having something of interest to guide you in.”
He also enjoys the challenge of working with a single, fixed lens. “Looking at a lot of [David] Plowden’s photos where he uses a [fixed, normal lens], but he’s so close to [his subject], and they’re really so dynamic, they’re really just jumping out of the frame at you.’
D’Amato has a 50/1.8 that is a favorite when photographing at baseball games and concerts. “I came away from those…impressed with the framing I came up with…or the different compositions I come up with when I’m not thinking about zooming….when you have this one lens, you say, ‘Well, here’s what I’m working with; what can I capture with this?’”
D’Amato also brings an athlete’s competitive nature to his photography. In addition to music and trains, the third strong interest that Nick shares with his father is baseball, and Nick was named First Team, All-Prep as a senior at Blair Academy. That competitive edge helps to explain why he so consciously strives for originality in his work.
“I actively try to take shots that are different from other people’s. I just don’t have a heck of a lot of interest in making the same photograph that a lot of other people are making, and that’s part of why I don’t do a lot of things like charters and things like that,” he said.
One thing that he does try to do is to establish a sense of context in his photography. “The overall thing that I think about everywhere is, ‘What’s unique about this place?’…What can I show that gives the viewer a sense of being at this location?”
Nicholas D’Amato and Valerie Curtis in front of the Norfolk Southern trestle in Lynchburg, Virginia.
The balancing of interests that Nick learned from his parents is something that he has carried into his adult life, although he is quick to joke that, compared to his Ph.D. coursework at Duke, there’s “probably too much photography [laughs].” Valerie Curtis, his girlfriend of three years and a Ph.D. student in the same program at Duke, offers plenty of evidence and encouragement of that balance.
“It’s never been this singular thing that defines him,” Valerie says of Nick’s railroad photography. She explained that when they were first dating, “Pretty soon we both realized that we liked the outdoors and going on trips…[we] would have this beautiful, romantic weekend planned, but along the way we would stop and wait for a train to come by, and take a picture….it didn’t take long to realize that it was something [Nick] was passionate about….This is something he was really good at….I love taking pictures, too…but his are photographs. They’re art.”
As Valerie has continued to join Nick on trackside detours while en route to concerts or baseball games, Nick soon found ways of making the stops more inclusive. “I’m his videographer…that’s sort of my role on the trip,” she explained. “He’ll post them…I guess it’s like the rail-videos site. I don’t have my own account — I think I should, maybe, because I get a lot of views with those!”
On a recent trip to Boston with several girlfriends, Valerie even admits to photographing an MTBA commuter train entirely on her own. “It was this immediate sort of reaction,” she claimed. “I texted Nick. I was like, ‘Nick, I have to tell you. I just took a picture of a train. What have you done to me?’”
Not that she has any regrets. “We get to go to these really beautiful places all across the country, and he takes pictures of them [trains], and then we go do things that I want to do. [Laughs.] It’s really very cool, and I’ve totally embraced it.”
Nick is looking forward to his upcoming story in Locomotive 2010 magazine on a local shortline, the Aberdeen & Rockfish. He hopes for the challenge of more assignment-based photography while continually developing his personal vision of railroad photography…with Valerie’s help. “I’m always…trying to get him to take more pictures with people in them,” she said. “I think it’s good to sort of force him out of his comfort zone a little bit. You can only learn more and grow more.”
— Scott Lothes, June 2010
See more of Nick’s work at diamonddphotography.com.