A Profile of Jennifer McDaniel, by Scott Lothes
CSX diesel switcher leading two passenger cars across the St. Johns River drawbridge in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 20, 2010. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Young railroad photographers are changing and challenging traditional stereotypes about the community in almost every way: digital, not film; diesel, not steam; electronic publication, not print.
Jennifer McDaniel, photo by Bob Pickering
And now comes a crop of females, at least one of whom, Jennifer McDaniel, makes “railfanning” only one of many creative pursuits. She also plays the piano and composes original music, draws, and has a black belt in Taekwon-Do. Her interest in trains and railroads developed only a few years ago, but her path to photography resembles that of many railroad enthusiasts’: a natural curiosity about machines and transportation combined with a trigger event of discovering that other people, too, like trains and photographing them.
Now in her late 20s, McDaniel has lived in Florida her entire life. Nurturing parents helped her creativity emerge early. As a child she not only drew avidly, but she also painted and sculpted. During high school she became interested in the piano. Today she writes neoclassical and romantic-era music for piano and small ensembles (focusing on woodwinds). “Boredom and I do not get along very well,” she says of her varied activities.
McDaniel thrives in the male-dominated activity of railroad photography, particularly enjoying the opportunity to combine two of her greatest interests: transportation and the arts. In an email interview she explained, “I have always had an interest in anything mechanical involved in transportation. I have also always been very involved and interested in anything creative or artsy, so I thought photography would be the best way to creatively express my new interest [in trains].”
McDaniel has always gravitated towards friendships with persons older than she is, and one of those friendships proved instrumental to her railroad photography. She found relationships with those her own age more difficult, particularly as a child and teenager. “Social situations in school just didn’t happen for me,” she said, “and I found myself more comfortable in homeschooling for most of junior and senior high school, as well as college dual-enrollment during high school.”
Despite earning several college credits while in high school, McDaniel did not enter college immediately. “Honestly, by the end of high school I was tired of going to school and wanted a break. I also had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said. Before enrolling in college in 2009, she spent several years working a variety of jobs, including a brief stint as a 911 dispatcher. Phone-based dispatching was a poor fit, but she said, “It was meant to be for me to work that job temporarily.” She discovered a passion for emergency services, which remotivated her for college, and she met and befriended Bob Pickering, who introduced her to railroad photography. They dated for a while, but their relationship did not last. Now they remain friends and McDaniel’s new interest in trains blossomed as a result.
When McDaniel visited Pickering’s house for the first time, she found the walls adorned with his railroad photographs. Prior to that, she had focused her mechanical interest on cars and semi-trucks, simply because they constituted the bulk of her exposure to transportation vehicles (she had even worked briefly as an automotive technician). “If I had grown up in the northeast (like Pennsylvania) where there is an abundance of railroad activity, an interest most likely would have been triggered much sooner,” she said. “There is not much rail activity here in east Florida where I grew up.”
Once sparked, McDaniel’s interest in railroads and photographing them grew quickly. She had enjoyed photography as a child, explaining, “There are very few pictures of me from around age 10 and up at any family function because I was usually the one holding the camera. It drove my parents nuts!”
After seeing Pickering’s railroad photos, she demanded to join him on his next outing. In the two years that have followed, she has photographed trains throughout Florida, as well as Pennsylvania and the Northeast Corridor. She quickly upgraded her point-and-shoot digital camera to a dSLR and began spending as much time by the tracks as possible. She now has over one hundred of her images on railpictures.net, whose forums have provided one of her primary tools for learning photography and digital photo editing.
Pursuing an interest more common among males comes naturally to McDaniel, who has always marched to her own beat. “I have never been ‘girly’ or feminine in my entire life,” she explained. “As a child I preferred a toy car or GI Joe over a Barbie doll or makeup, and I actually spray-painted camo a pink Barbie van someone gave me in an effort to evoke my ‘inner girl.’ It made a great combat vehicle for my GI Joes.”
She has encountered some male railroad enthusiasts who do not take her seriously, but they have posed small obstacles. “I find it easy to ignore their ignorance because I have had experience my entire life being involved in activities that are primarily and overwhelmingly male.”
McDaniel will graduate in summer 2011 from Daytona State College with an associate’s degree in mathematics, and she plans to continue working towards a bachelor’s degree in math or engineering. Her new interest in railroads even helped her in college, providing a frequent topic for research papers. “I did three reports on trains in one semester. … For these projects I had to do a lot of reading and learned a lot; I wish I could study trains every semester for a grade!”
In the future, she looks forward to traveling and seeing more railroads, both domestically and abroad. “I would love to travel to England and Japan to see trains (as well as [to explore] an interest in the countries themselves),” she said, and continued, “I would also love to travel to the western United States to see BNSF and Union Pacific.”
Wherever life may take McDaniel, her interests in railroads and photography are poised to add a challenging, enjoyable creative outlet for many years to come. Her reflections touch on an almost-universal appeal of railroad photography, free of gender-specific emotions:
“I love the challenge of being relatively new to this hobby and learning all that I can to improve. I love that my creativity is challenged in trying to find new angles in locations that are very popular and photographed by other railfans, as well as finding obscure places that maybe have not been experimented with. … It is also nice to get out on my own without distractions. There are many places here where the track cuts through the middle of nowhere and other areas with small railroad bridges that are nice to do photography. These areas are also very quiet and enjoyable places to relax and think by oneself.”
See more of Jen’s work at railpictures.net.