Young West Virginia Photographer becomes an Internet Sensation, by David C. Lester
CSX westbound empty coal train crossing the New River at Ansted, West Virginia, at dawn on July 29, 2011. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
If you want evidence of the Internet’s profound impact on railroad photography, look no further than Chase Gunnoe. Not yet 18, this West Virginian has emerged as one of the most widely known and discussed railroad photographers of the digital age, thanks largely to his tremendous presence on the highly popular RailPictures.net website. His images began appearing on the site in 2008, when he was only 12 years old, and as of July 2012 he has more than 1,800 photographs online. His work consistently ranks among the site’s most popular, frequently garnering a combined 10-15,000 views per week, and it has led directly to corporate clients, including Amtrak and Norfolk Southern, as well as several magazine publications and print sales.
Chase Gunnoe, photograph by Chris Starnes
The six-foot-tall Gunnoe hails from the chemical-producing town of Nitro, just fourteen miles down the Kanawha River from Charleston, the state’s capital. Norfolk Southern’s West Virginia Secondary route passes within a block of his home, and CSX’s busy ex-Chesapeake & Ohio main line is just across the river in St. Albans. Gunnoe credits his home state’s natural beauty and dramatic railroad operations as early sources of inspiration for his photography.
Grandmother Peggy Horton said her father loved trains, but no one in the family directly inspired her grandson. “Chase started out with a strong interest in boats, and wanted to go to Cincinnati to ride them. Then, all of a sudden, his interest changed from boats to trains. Chase can see trains passing from the front porch of his home in Nitro, so I imagine that had something to do with it.”
Gunnoe attended elementary school at St. Francis Catholic School in St. Albans. Since the church did not offer junior high classes near his home, he went to public school. The curriculum lagged behind St. Francis’ and boredom set in because Gunnoe had already covered the subjects. His mother, Tish Horton, decided that home schooling was a better option. This has allowed Gunnoe to work at a higher academic level while also having a flexible schedule to pursue photography. Horton carefully manages his studies, and he is thriving in the home school environment.
“My interest in railroads began about the time that I started home schooling,” he said. An early interest in model railroading quickly led to learning about full-sized trains. In his early years of railroad photography, however, Gunnoe had some trouble staying motivated because he was not able to find others in his community interested in railroads. Again, his mother played a key role by “helping me develop the confidence and motivation to pursue the hobby, despite the lack of rail photographers in my area. With her support, both emotionally and in driving me around in the early years, she was very influential in my developing a strong interest in railroad photography.”
With the support from his mother, along with eventually finding other rail photographers in or near Nitro, Gunnoe’s photography blossomed. Interestingly, Gunnoe has never used a film camera—the popularity of 35mm film cameras was plummeting when he began shooting, so digital was the natural choice. However, “I would like to try shooting with film one day, in order to learn how it compares with digital.”
Family Life and Travel
Friends and family members frequently comment that Gunnoe is mature beyond his years. His parents divorced a few years after he was born, and his father (whose career was in the oil industry) suffered a debilitating stroke not long after. His mother and maternal grandparents raised him, and Chase’s primary male role models have been his grandfather and his uncles. His grandmother explained that one of those uncles, Lee Horton, “earned a Master’s Degree from West Virginia University, is a history buff, and has traveled extensively. We think Chase is very much like his Uncle Lee in that he has such a keen interest in so many things and possesses a knowledge and enthusiasm about life that you don’t often see in one so young.”
Gunnoe’s business sense (he already sells his photographs) and creativity surely come from his grandparents. His grandfather ran his own heating and air conditioning business for thirty years, while his grandmother taught piano, published a book of short stories, and still writes regularly for newspapers and Internet publications.
Gunnoe enjoys his life with his mother and younger sister, Carson, and their frequent visits to his grandparents’. He tries to act as a mentor for Carson, who just turned 13. He admits to pushing Carson a bit, and she sometimes feels he’s being hard on her. He hopes she will see the pressure, “as my trying to help her maximize the value of her time, and do productive things to benefit her future.”
As for socializing, Gunnoe is active in his church’s youth group and tends to develop friendships with slightly older persons through his photography and railroad connections. He is an active member of the Charleston Camera Club and has railroad friends of all ages across the country. Some mentor her son, his mother said. Gunnoe himself observed, “As for friendships with people around my age, I have very few locally, but I have also developed a handful of friends my age [across the country] who share my interest in railroads and railroad photography.”
Gunnoe enjoys frequent rail photography trips, often with two or three others who share expenses. “While my mother contributes to my trip expenses and camera gear,” he said, his photography sales help. “I have been very fortunate to have a few significant publications … including the cover of Amtrak’s national timetable for Spring-Summer 2010, and Norfolk Southern’s Christmas e-card for 2011. I also occasionally have magazine articles published, and sell a number of prints.”
Night photography is one of Gunnoe’s specialities. Photographing in West Virginia’s forested mountains is difficult under the best of circumstances, and doing it at night is even harder. “Among the most challenging experiences are hiking at night in complete darkness, and then working with the various lighting conditions, depending on your subject,” Gunnoe said. “The results are very rewarding, but tough to attain.”
Hallmarks of Gunnoe’s night photography include long time exposures of the rail landscape under moonlight, trains in motion illuminated by flash, and stationary signals beaming red, green and yellow lights through darkness and fog. His interest in signals extends to their types and history, and he has been documenting CSX’s signal replacement project along the former Chesapeake & Ohio main line over the last several years.
His talents are not confined to night photography. Cofounder of RailPictures.net and frequent traveling companion Chris Starnes said, “Chase’s work is technically superior, but he also has a gift for composition and lighting that you don’t often see. Chase’s work is on a level of its own. He is also very good with Photoshop, and he gets the most out of his images without going overboard.
“Chase had long been one of the more active photographers and members on RailPictures.net prior to him becoming a part of the team with us,” Starnes continued. “It was obvious that he had a good grasp on the standards RailPictures.net wishes to uphold and seemed to have ample time on his hands to dedicate to being a part of the screening team. Chase has grown up being around fellow railfans and railroad photographers much older than him, and as a result he is very mature for his age, which was a key part of us allowing him to become part of the screening crew. He has talked about pursuing a career in photojournalism so his work at RailPictures is a good building block for his college and career paths.”
Gunnoe said that his goal is to make excellent railroad photographs with some degree of artistry, yet he does not consider himself a fine art photographer. “I’ve been working some with black and white, which can be a dramatic and powerful medium, especially with scenes that include a lot of contrast. A given scene photographed in color may produce only average results, but the same scene in black and white can result in a memorable image.” Gunnoe has studied the work of Richard Steinheimer, Jim Shaughnessy, and David Plowden, among others, and he finds Plowden’s work particularly inspirational. He also looks to some younger photographers for ideas and inspiration, including Scott Lothes and Dave Honan.
Gunnoe recently had opportunities to expand his geographic horizons beyond West Virginia and neighboring states. Online contacts, primarily, led to trips to Chicago for the Center’s conference and multiple visits to the Southwest. “My favorite place to make photographs, outside of home, is in the desert,” he said. Gunnoe’s recent photographs of trains in southern California incorporate the surrounding mountains, giving them a sense of place that is very different from West Virginia.
Gunnoe is drawn to what he calls the “timeless ambiance” of both Appalachia and the Desert Southwest. “West Virginia and Appalachia offer unique abandoned coal towns with their own respective historic past, while the Desert Southwest has the same emotional feeling of abandonment, especially in regards to Route 66 and the small communities along it. To me, there’s a connection, and the railroad actually doesn’t play a significant part in the comparison. In addition to the history, the type of railroading in both Appalachia and the desert is extremely challenging, with steep grades and other challenges.
“They’re also quite different in many ways, especially in regard to the commodities hauled by the railroads. West Virginia and Appalachia certainly do not compete with West Coast railroading in terms of priority traffic. It’s neat to compare each of the railroads and how they operate.”
Gunnoe is also learning to portray the human side of railroading, combining his light sense with a knack for capturing candid moments. He sees capturing the expressions and emotions of those who run the railroad as a growth area for his photography. He said, “I believe that the work of the railroader is often overlooked by photographers.”
When asked about this photographic process, Gunnoe offered the following. “I always try to comply with the rule of thirds. I will evaluate the scene for about thirty seconds, or longer if I have time, and identify the advantages and disadvantages. A disadvantage would be a power line or something that distracts the eye, like the corner of a fence. An advantage is a tree that frames the image or other objects that will complete the scene. In addition, weather and light can work to your advantage.”
Gunnoe believes in creating his own luck as a photographer, and he plans far in advance, using the arsenal of digital technology including online maps and satellite photographs, as well as more traditional resources like books and railroad timetables. “I learn as much as I can about the history of the railroad, as well as its current traffic patterns,” he said. “All of this information can put you in the right place at the right time, and if all the other elements come together, you have a good chance of making a good railroad photograph.”
Focus and Future
Gunnoe’s dedication has manifested itself in other aspects of his life, too. While most young men and women are eager to get their driver’s license when they turn 16, Gunnoe decided to delay this milestone for the betterment of his photography. He made an agreement with his mother that instead of driving, he would prefer money to buy additional photographic equipment.
So how is Gunnoe able to cover the amount of territory that he does? Early on, he would ride his bicycle all over Nitro to photograph the two freight trains that switched cars in the small yard each day. Later, “my mother was very understanding, and she drove me around to other local areas.” Now he frequently travels with other photographers who do the driving.
Gunnoe said that his future is still undecided. “I have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing a career with a railroad, nor would I rule out a career in photography, either as a photojournalist or as a freelance photographer.” He is well aware of the challenges of earning a living through photography in the 21st century. He is also considering a job in emergency services.
See more of Chase’s work at RailPictures.net.