Union Pacific power turning on the wye at “South Oakland,” a segment of industrial trackage serving Schnitzer Steel. Photo by Mike Johannessen. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Mike Johannessen was born in Berkeley, California, and grew up as an only child in nearby El Sobrante, within earshot of both Southern Pacific and Santa Fe mainlines through the Bay Area. I spoke first with his father, Bob Johannessen, a stay-at-home dad until Mike entered elementary school. He told me that Mike’s interest in trains surfaced at a very young age. “When Michael was two,” he said, “his uncle bought him an HO-scale Bachmann [model train] starter set . . . [and] he was hooked.”
Mike’s mother, Carol Morse, a U.S. Census worker, told me in a later phone interview how she learned the hard way that her young son took his train interest very seriously, a trait that continues to this day in his photography. “Not toy trains! That was my mistake,” she said with a chuckle. “Very early he knew the difference between toy trains and models.”
As young Mike and his father made the rounds of all the nearby parks, they discovered the Golden State Model Railroad Museum and the East Bay Model Engineers Society at Point Richmond. Their Sunday afternoons immediately took on a new focus.
“Pretty soon, it got to where all the guys at the club knew us by name,” Bob said. “I even became a member there myself. They told me that since we were coming so often, it would be cheaper for me to just join, so I went through their six-month student program and became a regular member.”
Both his parents and those who have examined his photographs find that Mike has a keen, almost obsessive attention to detail, a trait that I quickly recognized myself while he was showing me around Donner Pass. He told me that his initial photography interest grew out of his exacting standards for his models. His mother Carol said, “As he got a little older, and he wanted to model what he saw out by railroad tracks . . . he wanted to take pictures of them [the real trains], because the thing out of the box [the model train] wasn’t good enough for him, even though he was eight years old. … He started doing photography so he could have something to refer to, to model.”
Both his parents enjoy photography and supported their son’s new interest. Mike’s early efforts with disposable cameras led to their first buying him a Samsung point-and-shoot camera and then a Canon Rebel SLR with a 28-80 lens when he was twelve. Taking advantage of the growing digital imaging technology and online resources of the late 1990s, Mike soon had created a website of his equipment and detail photos of railroad equipment, using a flatbed scanner to digitize his color prints.
To learn more about the technical aspects of photography, Mike searched online and found “Grumpy’s World,” an early railroad photography website run by James Gilley that was especially popular at the turn of the millennium. It included an early incarnation of a photography blog and a detailed guide to railroad photography, seasoned by the webmaster’s highly opinionated views on composition and his devotion to absolute perfection in terms of sharpness and exposure.
“Even at age 13, I wanted to be the master,” Mike said. “I tried to follow [Gilley’s] rules as well as I could.”
At this stage in his development, Mike told me how he strongly believed that photography was strictly a means for documentation and reference, to the point that he “adamantly disagreed that photography could be a form of art.” Yet as he was continually exposed to more creative photography through his growing network of other photographers, he slowly began to shift his stance.
“I think what caused me to reconsider that was just trying it and seeing the results, and the potential for some sort of emotional response,” he said.
As Mike’s railroad interest transitioned from modeling to photography, and with his father working full-time again as a technology equipment buyer, Carol Johannessen became the more active parent in her son’s rail-related activities. Mike was already making friends with shared interests, both through modeling groups and via rail-related websites. Soon Carol and her big red van became the preferred conveyance for a sizable group of early teenaged boys (still without drivers’ licenses) to visit the railroad tracks. Carol took them there gladly—at all hours of the day and night.
“I was probably more accommodating than I should have been,” she told me, “and a lot of people think I was crazy, but I like photography, and I really like night photography. … I was interested in getting Michael into that.”
She succeeded. Mike’s interest in night photography took a firm hold, to the point that Mike has amassed a sizable arsenal of camera gear tailored for nocturnal shooting. (“Daytime shooting is overrated,” he told me in a recent phone call.) Always a throwback when it comes to photography, his first serious camera gear was a manual focus Canon FD system. When that was stolen in 2007, Mike immediately used the money he’d been saving from his summer engineering jobs to buy a Canon EOS 5D mark II digital camera and several prime lenses, preferring their extra brightness for night photography over the convenience of zoom lenses (which he is proud of not owning).
His mother kept the Canon Rebel and 28-80 zoom lens. She said, “I still take pictures of flowers. I’m mostly botanically-oriented, but I’ve done other stuff. … [T]he reason that I wanted to teach Michael photography is that it’s a life-long hobby. … [T]here’s no end to what you can do.”
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