Union Pacific container train cresting the summit of Nevada’s Sand Pass. Photo by Justin Tognetti. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Speaking with both of his parents on a conference call, I learned that Justin Tognetti’s fascination with trains also grew from a young age. His mother, Antonia Tognetti, said, “Ever since he was like three years old, it’s been a big deal for him. … My mom took care of Justin while my husband and I were at work [both for the City of Sunnyvale, a suburb of San Jose] and she lives really close to the CalTrains station here in Sunnyvale. She would take walks with him and my niece and nephew, and then Justin would start, ’Let’s go to the train station! Let’s go to the train station!’”
Railroad photography came first from Justin’s father, John, who would take photos of trains for his young son’s enjoyment. By age five Justin was taking his own photos, but his parents continued to play very supportive roles. His two half-brothers are several years older, so Justin received quite a bit of attention from his parents while he was growing up. John had been a photographer for his high school yearbook and provided early tutelage. As Justin explained to me in a phone interview, “My dad used to take photos; he had a darkroom at one point. He was very helpful to teach me to use the camera and all that. He never really took pictures of trains, but he knew what made a good photo.”
The family frequently went camping at Dunsmuir, in the mountains of northern California along Union Pacific’s former Southern Pacific mainline to Oregon, and Justin said, “Eventually I just started convincing my dad to let me have a couple of hours by the tracks to get whatever might come by.”
Both mother and father were more than happy to accommodate their youngest son’s interest, and they soon found that they, too, could take delight in excursions into remote railroad locations. Said John, “We enjoyed going on vacation and getting away, so it was kind of a double. We’d get out, and he’d get to take pictures. Wherever you go, there’s a railroad track someplace. … We’d run him all over the place!”
These family trips continued for several years, but they ended abruptly. I noted a touch of sadness in Antonia’s voice when she explained, “We would take him wherever he wanted to go. Then once he got his driver’s license, that was it, we didn’t get to go anymore.”
The trips created many fond memories, and John and Antonia continue to travel, revisiting many of the same places and sending text messages to Justin whenever they see trains. “We got to go to a lot of great places just by accident by doing this,” John said. “You drive into these little towns and you find these little hidden places that are great, that you really enjoy, that you mark down to go back.”
“It was great,” Antonia concluded. “It was an experience I wouldn’t have traded for anything.”
While Justin’s parents were “running him all over the place,” he was continuing to learn about photography on his own. Railroad photography websites were still in their infancy at this time, and Justin said, “It was kind of slim pickings in terms of finding really good photography [online].”
“When I was about age fourteen, I inherited literally hundreds of back issues of [railroad magazines] from a family friend who also happened to be somewhat of a railfan. I pored over the photographs in each issue, and became familiar with the work of talented photographers like Ted Benson, Dick Dorn, Elrond Lawrence, and Brian Solomon among many others. I began to notice key elements of their photography like lighting, composition, and location.”
Perhaps because of this, Justin still prefers printed publications to online media, both for learning and as an outlet for his own work. “I get a lot more out of seeing my stuff in print versus up on Railpictures,” making him something of a rarity in his Internet-hooked peer group.
“It’s kind of a personal opinion,” he said. “I just think the people who ran magazines like CTC Board have a lot more background. It’s also more kind of a bias thing, too, because I’ve enjoyed their work for a long time.”
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