Photo by Justin Tognetti. Searchlight signal glows green on a foggy night in California’s Sierra Nevada, indicating a clear track on Union Pacific’s mainline over Donner Pass. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Bay Area Californians form a dynamic photography team, by Scott Lothes
It really was a dark and stormy night [in October 2009] when I stood with Mike Johannessen and Justin Tognetti, two young Californian railroad photographers, on a rugged hilltop overlooking the serpentine east slope of Union Pacific’s mainline over Donner Pass. The vantage point for this breathtaking view they had named “Turd Mountain,” the result of an unpleasant discovery during their first visit.
Mike Johannessen. Photo by Mel Patrick.
The irreverent sobriquet hints at the outward nature of these two “Millennials.” Their generation came of age during the first decade of the new millennium, grew up under the influence of The Simpsons, South Park, and Beavis & Butthead, and can barely remember the world without cell phones and Internet. Justin and Mike share a dark sense of humor peppered liberally with sarcasm, a tendency towards self-deprecation, and the quiet nature of introverts.
A brooding introvert myself, I sense there is much more to my two volunteer tour guides who graciously took me under their wings when they discovered me stumbling around in search of trains and photo angles on “their” home turf. I had already seen it in their top-notch railroad photography– they are among two of the best in a state full of bright young stars. I caught another glimpse during our drive back to civilization on that wintry night in October 2009.
Justin Tognetti. Photo by Mel Patrick.
The “road” is the old right-of-way over the summit of Donner Pass, the one hewn out manually by Chinese laborers in the 1860s, abandoned in 1993 in favor of the second, lower and longer summit tunnel completed in 1925. We drove through the original bore, and Mike stopped his SUV in the middle, stepped outside, and shined a spotlight directly above us. There, a tiny, jagged hole in the rock went straight up to the surface.
Mike explained, “That was a construction shaft so they could dig this tunnel from four faces. [One from each end and two going out from the middle.] They lowered laborers down through that hole.”
No one said anything for a long moment. When we got back in the vehicle and resumed our bumpy drive, the crass jokes of minutes before were nowhere to be found, swallowed by reverence for long-deceased laborers and engineers in the darkness.
Trains and photography provide Mike and Justin with the chance to escape from society and exercise masculine tendencies, much in the way fishing and hunting serve other groups of men. Yet beyond the veneer of sarcasm and self-deprecation (traits we Americans are said to have inherited from the British and Irish), these two young men take what they do very seriously. Their passion knows no bounds, from driving thousands of miles to staying up at all hours to sleeping in their trucks on freezing winter nights in the desert. Their curiosity is also limitless, always starting with the railroad but spanning myriad tangents from history to technology to geography.
Even their personalities and photography styles are far more different than I guessed at first glance. Johannessen, the lanky and clean-cut mechanical engineer, likes details and often uses telephoto lenses to isolate certain parts of a scene. He enjoys urban photography equally with rural escapes, recording commuter and transit rail approaches with the same enthusiasm he brings to the Sierra Nevada. Tognetti, the guitar player and senior by two years, is shorter, wears longer hair, and favors the liberal arts and the big picture. To him, the best photos come from remote places that no one else has discovered, or dared to venture.
The two form a team that is at times harmonious, at times paradoxical. Where did they come from? How did they meet? How have they developed together, and as individuals? Where are they going, and how will that impact the broader community of railroad photographers? I had to know, so I spent hours talking with them and their families.
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