Young West Virginian photographer pours lifetime of experiences into Cass Scenic Railroad
Shay locomotive no. 11 charging up Cass Hill on the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia, viewed from the first car of the train it is pushing. In normal operations at Cass, the locomotives are always front-coupled to the trains, which many photographers consider a limitation. Scriptunas used the arrangement as an opportunity to create a dynamic image of modern steam railroading. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
In the early 21st century, railroad photography is quite possibly enjoying its greatest popularity to date. As America reawakens to the notion of rail passenger travel and freight rail enjoys environmental support, mainstream media, including the New York Times, are trying to understand railroad enthusiasts and think of them in a serious, positive way. Digital photography and the Internet have led to dozens of photo-sharing sites devoted to railroad subjects, where thousands of photographers post their work. Among those thousands are ever-growing numbers of young photographers in their teens and twenties, passionately exploring their local, regional, and national railroad scenes. To follow their work is to follow a story of personal development, a search for both photographic vision and an outlet for it.
At age 18, Walter Scriptunas II, one of the more successful of this youthful group, has already found outlets for his railroad photography that many photographers twice and three times his age are still seeking. Now a freshman at the University of Charleston (West Virginia) majoring in communications, Scriptunas has had his photos appear in nearly every major rail magazine, as well as in books, calendars, DVD cases, and publications for West Virginia State Parks & Forests. Three of his photos appear in the new book Classic Steam, published in cooperation with the Center earlier this year.
While Scriptunas has traveled throughout the country in search of steam locomotives, he has created many of his most significant railroad photographs almost literally in his own backyard, at West Virginia’s Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The railroad is three-and-a-half hours from his primary home in Charleston, the state capital, but the Cass Scenic Railroad can be seen from his parents’ second home near the community of Cass where Walter says he now spends more time than in Charleston.
At least part of all nineteen of his summers found him in Cass. His grandmother owns a second home in East Cass, and his parents have a cabin five miles up Back Mountain Road, whose front porch offers a view to Bald Knob, the 4,842-foot summit that the railroad climbs. Over the last few years, when not in school, Cass has been his more primary home.
His father and both paternal uncles are also train-lovers, although their interests lean more towards riding trains and making model railroads. Walter II was the first to pursue photography seriously, which he says he began in earnest when he was 13, although his father had been giving him disposable cameras to use during trips since he was eight years old.
As an only child, Scriptunas credits his parents with a lot of help in his photography, from buying early point-n-shoot digital cameras when he was still too young to earn his own money, to the 500mm Canon lens he received for his eighteenth birthday. Yet he also has a determined independence, befitting an only child, and prefers to pay for his own gear. Today he has income from his photography, but in the beginning he mowed a lot of grass. When asked how many lawns it took for his 20D (his first dSLR), he gave a tired laugh and exclaimed, “I don’t even know!”
Learning by NASCAR
Scriptunas captured this dramatic pan shot at the 2009 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona.
Self-taught in photography thus far–partly by necessity, partly because he enjoys independent learning–Scriptunas looks forward to photojournalism classes as part of his major. Prior to college, he learned primarily through online photography tutorials and discussion boards, including fredmiranda.com, as well as e-mail correspondence with other photographers. Among his longest-standing mentors is the chief photographer for NASCAR Illustrated magazine, Jim Fluharty.
NASCAR rivals college football as the most popular spectator sport in West Virginia, and the Scriptunas family started going to races in 2001 when Walter was ten. Within three years, he had taken a photograph from the stands of the Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway that was later published, and he had begun an e-mail dialogue with Fluharty, who was impressed with both his attitude and his enthusiasm. His photos now appear frequently in NASCAR publications.
The fast pace of stock-car auto racing has helped Scriptunas hone his eye for many photographic subjects. Learning to adapt to the nuances of different race tracks has helped him pay closer attention to familiar railroad environments. Developing a sense of anticipation for wrecks has enabled him to better anticipate “decisive moments” on railroads, from capturing bursts of steam to workers’ expressions.
Sharing the Railroad
In stark contrast to Daytona’s 200 mph Fords and Chevys are the slow but nimble, geared steam locomotives at Cass. For Scriptunas, their power to fascinate is not the least bit diminished by the fact that they almost never exceed 10 mph. Judging from his photographs of Cass, such as his dramatic view of Shay no. 11 made just a few feet from its smokebox (at top), the slower pace fosters even deeper curiosity.
Scriptunas has grown up with Cass, and the place has become a part of him. When he was only nine, he began hanging around locomotive restoration projects at the Cass Shop, and the workers soon gave him small tasks like organizing tools and scraping grease. He has since put down his wrenches the better to focus on documenting the work with his camera. But the early familiarity was essential to his understanding of the people and their efforts to keep the fleet of 65- to 105-year-old locomotives running.
As his interest in photography has blossomed, Scriptunas has found a way to explore visually what he has grown up with at Cass, and to share it widely. In the spring of 2008, when he was still sixteen, the railroad asked him to photograph a piece of heritage railroad history: six of its locomotives under steam at the same time, along with the men and women who made it possible (see the bottom photo at left). That photo has since traveled the world, bringing countless new visitors to Cass.
Often, it has been Scriptunas’s desire to improve his portrayals of Cass that has fueled his growth. His photography reaches far beyond the locomotives to encompass all aspects of the landscape surrounding the railroad. His work offers a sense of both the place and its people.
Walter Scriptunas II enjoys the ride on a Cass Scenic Railroad train in West Virginia. Photo by Tim Martin.
For several years, Scriptunas has helped coordinate the photography events at the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association’s annual railfan weekends (see second photo from bottom), and he now has plans to organize his own photo charters.
His deep love of Cass and its surrounding mountains continues to keep Scriptunas motivated, always seeking new and unusual angles (including a recent shoot by helicopter, see the middle photo at left). He says, “My favorite part of photography is seeing people’s reactions and comments to the photos I take. Although I have taken thousands of images of Cass over the years I still strive to find new angles and to showcase the place to the best of my ability.”
After college, Scriptunas hopes to build upon his early success at NASCAR and become a fulltime, freelance sports photographer. This spring, he photographed in the pit area as an official freelancer at the Coke Zero 400, and he is already planning an expanded schedule with NASCAR publications editors for the next race season. The railroad heritage community can only hope that he will continue to find time to photograph at Cass as well, but if his first eighteen years offer any indication, finding time at Cass should only be natural.
See more of Walter’s work at scriptunasimages.com.