Mike Johannessen (left) and Justin Tognetti shooting on location in the Nevada desert during a nine-day trip together in January 2010. Photo by Mel Patrick.
When Mike was thirteen, he arranged a face-to-face meeting with Justin who was fifteen at the time. They knew each other only from the Internet. Mike’s mother told me how she drove to the selected meeting place with a little trepidation, watching carefully from the car. Carol’s fears stemmed from the newness of the Internet at that time. “I was like, ’Oh, Justin’s a pedophile!’ You know, because Michael met him online and that was ten years ago, and it was kinda creepy. . . . [B]ut it was nice, it was like, ’okay, they’re kids.’ … [A]nd then it was like, ’c’mon, Mom, we gotta go to the railroad tracks!’”
The two hit it off quickly, and a young photography team was formed.
“Most of my photography trips have been with somebody,” Mike said, and when I asked if he traveled with anyone most frequently, he responded quickly, “Mr. Tognetti, by far.”
When I asked why he gravitated towards Justin, Mike said, “I think we just saw things very similarly. … Perhaps subconsciously at first, we wanted to do more than just document the trains themselves. We had the same level of interest in going the distance into the unknown.”
Justin concurred in a later phone interview. “At the time, Mikey was about the only other railfan I had met in my age bracket that was at least as serious about getting good photos as I was. … Mike and I share the same curiosity about certain things, and we both enjoy exploring hidden or unknown areas for things that have eluded other photographers’ lenses.”
Spending so much time together was not without its drawbacks. Said Mike, “As a result, our shooting styles developed alongside one another and in much the same way. … For a long time, actually, we’d just stand right next to each other and take the same picture.”
“I think we’ve diverged in the last few years. I’ve sort of gone into honing in on a certain aspect of a scene, and he’s gone more towards the big picture.”
With an early interest in geography, Justin’s parents told me how he navigated all of their family trips as soon as he was old enough to read a map, which he learned at a very young age. His interests in maps and geography have continued to develop alongside his interests in railroads and photography, and some of Justin’s best work portrays the railroad within the landscape.
“I’ve always been more about the landscape and the light, and different locations; especially stuff that no one seems to have photographed,” Justin said.
While Justin seeks out unique high vantages to show the “big picture,” Mike searches for unnoticed details. He said, “I like to just pull in particular parts of the scene.”
Mike told me that he recently has come to encompass transit and commuter rail in his work, especially BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, partly as a way to continue his growth as a photographer and partly reacting against the view of many railroad enthusiasts that such operations are not “real railroading”. “I’ve had a really tough time applying my ingrained techniques to those situations. Being in the City between a bunch of buildings, just popping on the 300[mm lens] and looking for an s-curve doesn’t really work. … I definitely enjoy the challenge.”
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