Seeing beyond the locomotives, by Scott Lothes
Colorado Fuel & Iron rails on the Norfolk Southern main line at Opelika, Alabama. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Family history and environment both play major roles in Frank Orona’s childhood love of trains. Family connected him to railroad equipment, and the heavy industry of the greater Birmingham, Alabama, area provided the railroad environment. As for photography, a chance encounter in college led him to it in 2006.
While Orona likes locomotives as much as any railroad photographer, what sets his work apart are his interests beyond locomotives—freight cars and their logos, and railroad equipment manufacturers and their products. “Where I grew up in Calera, Alabama, at the Abex plant where my dad worked, they made railroad wheels, and they would ship them out in boxcars,” Orona explained in a phone interview. “Seeing the big, bright colorful ones with giant logos on the sides always struck my imagination.”
No wonder that Orona continues photographing trains after the locomotives pass, or that he seeks out eye-catching logos and details in the railroad environment. The roots of those interests extend far beyond his father. The Orona family immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Pueblo, Colorado, at the turn of the twentieth century, where Frank’s great-grandfather found a job with the Chicago Freight Car company. Both of Frank’s grandfathers spent their careers making rail at the Colorado Fuel & Iron mill.
“It excites me to think that at some point there is a freight car riding on a wheel cast in my hometown of Calera that may be riding along quality rail rolled and straightened by my grandfathers,” Orona said.
His father took a job with railroad equipment manufacturer Abex Corporation in Pueblo after college, and in 1971 he transferred to their wheel plant in Calera. Abex became ABC Rail in 1987, and although the company went bankrupt in 2001, its legacy continues, and Orona takes notice. “If I see freight cars parked anywhere, I’ll usually check to see if the wheels were cast in Calera,” he said.
Freight car wheels at the crossing of CSX and Norfolk Southern lines in Calera, Alabama, the photographer’s hometown. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Frank was born in 1985 as the youngest of four children—all older sisters—and he spent his entire childhood and adolescence in Calera, 30 miles south of Birmingham. The location offered a rich railroad environment. In addition to the Abex / ABC plant, Calera is home to the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, and the heavy industry of Birmingham is nearby, including a Pullman-Standard freight car plant in Bessemer. Lines of the two major eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, cross in Calera. “Every day going to school, I’d see trains all the time,” Orona said.
His parents supported his interest from a young age. His mother, a retired jeweler, recalled one particular instance before Frank had even started school. “On the way home from picking up my daughters from school, I had to cross over railroad tracks,” she explained. “One day there was a train stopped there, and I got out and I said, ‘Hey, my son’s really interested in trains.’ And they, ‘Bring him up here,’ and they let him go up in the cab.”
That experience left a lasting imprint. “I can vividly remember sitting on the lap of the engineer and him showing me the lever for the horn and then him allowing me to pull it and blow the horn. That is a memory I’ll always cherish,” he said.
Annual vacations to visit family still living in Colorado added to Frank’s memories. “I always looked forward to the drive because a majority of it would parallel the railroad,” he said. “The city of Pueblo also had the side-by-side yards of the Southern Pacific (ex-Rio Grande) and Santa Fe. The former Rio Grande diesel shop always had lots of power on hand that could easily be seen.”
Until he could drive himself, Frank’s parents frequently took him out to see trains. Even today, they enjoy accompanying him on photography outings. “Whenever he’s home, we usually go out to take pictures,” his father said. “We’ve gone with him several times. We enjoy going with him, and after we’ve had a good excursion, we like to come home and put his photos up on the big screen TV.”
There were also some challenges to having such a strong childhood interest. Frank’s mother recalled one in particular. “In third grade, they tested kids for the gifted program. His grades were high and they asked him to be tested. The teacher told us afterwards that he wasn’t focusing on the test or the questions she was asking him, because he kept looking out the window at the trains going by, because the school was right next to the railroad tracks.”
Frank did successfully enter the gifted program in eighth grade, and the overall impact of railroads on his education has been positive. The interest helped lead him to engineering, and in 2010 he completed a double major at Auburn University in mechanical and materials engineering. His education included two summer internships at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, where one of his uncles works.
College introduced him to some of his best friends, as well as photography, thanks to a serendipitous midnight meeting in 2006. “In the town of Opelika, Alabama [eight miles east of Auburn], there’s an interlocking where CSX crosses Norfolk Southern,” he explained. “I knew there was an NS train coming, so I picked up my girlfriend at the time and we went out to see the train. Low and behold—this is probably 11 at night—we’re here watching this train and I see another car pull up. At first I’m thinking, ‘This might be some trouble.’ I see two guys out of the car, and I asked them, just trying to be friendly, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ And they respond, ‘Are you going to catch the CSX train, too?”
The girlfriend from that night didn’t last, but the new friendship with Mason Bernard did. From Mason, Frank also met several other railroad photographers at Auburn: Darrell Krueger, John Higginson, J.L. Scott, and Britt Johnson. “It’s just amazing that we’re all in the same age group and all attended Auburn at the same time,” Frank said. Within a few months, he had purchased his first digital camera. “From these guys, I learned the art of photography—especially from Mr. John Higginson,” Frank said. Higginson had already been photographing for several years, and “he taught me a lot about composing photos and looking at the scene before the train gets there to get an idea of what you want to photograph.”
Influence and Motivation
Like many of today’s young railroad photographers, Orona turned to the railpictures.net website as an outlet for his work, as well as a source of inspiration and feedback. While many photographers complain about the site’s screening process, Orona said that having photos rejected there “taught me a lot of how to compose a better-looking photograph.” The rejections also spurred face-to-face discussions about photography with Higginson and the others. And as they began traveling together on photography trips, Orona sought ways to distinguish his work. “I don’t want to have the same shot as them,” he remarked. “I want to try something different.”
In January 2011, Orona started working in quality control at Kia Motors’ U.S. Assembly Plant in West Point, Georgia. His college photography friends have also graduated and scattered, but they try to maintain their ties. “Every year, we try to get together at least one weekend,” Orona said. “Now that we’re working, it’s a little harder, but we try to get together during a holiday weekend and make the most of it.”
And he continues to pursue railroad photography on his own. The depth and breadth of railroading combined with the ever-changing nature of the industry provide motivation that Orona expects to last his lifetime. “You never know what you’re going to catch out there or what unique things you’re going to come across,” he said of his time in the field. “Photograph what you see today because it’s probably going to be gone tomorrow.”
He also enjoys the exposure to so many places he may never have seen. “Nowadays you travel the Interstates everywhere, but it’s nice to take back roads that follow railroad tracks and see what you come across,” he said. “If I’d never gotten into this hobby, I would have never visited many of the places in the state of Alabama that I’ve been to so far.”
“I think Frank was born with trains in his blood,” his mother concluded. “He’d rather be out there photography trains than anything.”
See more of Frank’s work at railpictures.net.