With deep railroading roots, young Oregonian photographer sheds light on unexplored subjects
Amtrak train no. 14, the northbound Coast Starlight, passing a farm at twilight in western Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Click on the photo to view its entry on railroadheritage.org.
Foreordained by a great-great-grandfather who worked on the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, Kyle Weismann-Yee’s fascination with trains surfaced at a very young age. When he was just nine months old, his family moved into a house on a hill overlooking the Union Pacific mainline in Portland, Oregon. His mother, Sally Yee, recalls how “the windows would rattle and you could feel the floors and ground rumble beneath your feet” whenever the trains passed. Young Kyle, however, “would get excited as he felt the trains coming.” His mother placed a chair by the window so he could have a better view, and his father, Bill Weismann, helped him identify the different locomotives and cars. While the rest of his family eventually learned to ignore the whistles and rumbles, Kyle’s fascination with them continued to grow, and the growth has not abated..
A young Kyle Weismann-Yee posing in front of Southern Pacific Daylight steam locomotive no. 4449 in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Bill Weismann.
To expose their two sons to different languages and cultures, as well as to provide some continuity to their K-12 educations, Kyle’s parents placed both him and his younger brother in a Japanese magnet school (there were no Chinese programs in Portland at that time). The program included two-week trips to Japan in both sixth grade and eighth grade, and these led to some of Weismann-Yee’s earliest railroad photography. He fondly remembers the relative independence the trips afforded, not to mention how much his classmates valued his familiarity with interpreting railroad timetables since they frequently traveled by train in rural Japan.
As a self-exploring adolescent, Weismann-Yee grappled with conflicting interests on opposite ends of the social spectrum: baseball, America’s national pastime, and trains, hardly the most popular among American teenagers. He says, “My interest in trains came and went a few times in my childhood-teenage years but never fully faded.” Baseball and trains proved more intertwined than he had first imagined. Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners (the northwest’s only major league baseball team), is adjacent to a busy BNSF Railway mainline also used by Amtrak intercity passenger trains and Sounder commuter trains (see third photo at left).
Merging his railroad interest with other pursuits, whether baseball or travel, proved important in Weismann-Yee’s early development as a railroad photographer. In the summer after high school, he says, “I was searching to find my ‘true self,’ and part of that was just ‘giving in’ to my train interest.” He asked his parents for a compact digital camera as a graduation present, and the day after receiving it he embarked on his first dedicated photography outing. The subject of that expedition? Not ballplayers at Safeco Field, but trains rolling through the Amtrak station at Vancouver, Washington. A digital SLR for Christmas later that same year cemented his new pursuit.
Self-taught like many young railroad photographers, Weismann-Yee primarily uses today’s electronic resources to hone his craft. Railroad photography sites such as railroadforums.com and railpictures.net influenced him early on, providing outlets for pictures and, perhaps most importantly, critical perspectives. “I don’t always agree with the photo screeners or the other posters on those sites, but they really helped me become more self-critical of my compositions. I basically turned into my own biggest critic and never settle for anything other than what I had envisioned before I take the photograph.”
Besides online influences, two pictorial railroad books stand out in Kyle’s mind for their influence: Rob Leachman’s Northwest Passage and Southern Pacific: Oregon Division by Brian Jennison and Victor Neves. Says Weismann-Yee, “The photographs in those books helped me begin to see the story-telling potential of railroad photography. I think that was my mental turning point from taking train photographs to taking photographs of trains.”
Influences and Effects
While attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, Weismann-Yee befriended another railroad enthusiast, Dan Larsen, whose car afforded them weekend trips into the Cascade Mountains along the Union Pacific mainline (see fourth photo at left). Waiting for trains in the tranquil surroundings proved a release to the pressures of school, where he pursued ethnic studies. “I learned patience and self-reflection, and those photography trips gave me time to process the material from my classes,” Kyle said. His father was also grateful for his son’s interest in photography during his college years. “It provided a positive outlet for his free time while at the University of Oregon, a notorious party school. [The campus provided the physical setting for the movie Animal House, whose story arose from Dartmouth experiences.] He often made a point of completing his homework assignments and papers so he could get out for a weekend in the Cascades.”
The jaunts into the mountains proved eye-opening. Although a lifelong resident of Portland before then, Weismann-Yee had seen relatively little of the northwest’s natural landscapes. Enthralled, he began to wonder what else he had overlooked. Thus began his ongoing quest to document the region’s lesser-known railroad operations. Given his lifelong education in diversity, Weismann-Yee naturally turned his camera on oft-overlooked photographic subjects. “I think going to college in Eugene helped me develop an interest in shortlines….I enjoy capturing the off-the-beaten-path operations and locations.”
Back in Portland after college, Weismann-Yee faces today’s formidable challenges for young job seekers. The effects of the recession have been especially pronounced in the Pacific Northwest, a region with deep economic ties to the timber industry, now battered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle. With his bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies, he has completed several unpaid internships since graduating in 2008. But a paid position remains elusive.
Yet Weismann-Yee has found opportunities for unique and significant railroad photography. With ample time but limited funds for extended travel, he has begun to look more deeply at his home city’s railroads. Beyond the busy mainlines and bustling freight yards, he is finding rickety sidings curving off into the remnants of the city’s industrial areas, but not locating much information about them. Weismann-Yee has become an authority on Portland’s industrial switching districts and has quickly amassed an impressive number of photographs (see top and second photos at left) that depict the remaining operations.
Kyle Weismann-Yee relaxing as a BNSF coal train passes in the background. Photo by Dan Larsen.
Weismann-Yee documented Portland balloting in the 2008 presidential election. Click the photo to see the full gallery of photos on Kyle’s site.
Weismann-Yee remains uncertain how photography will play into his future. So far, he has been reluctant to mix his photographic interest with professional goals. “I have found that my photography is my way to get away from the stresses of school and complex issues I have chosen as my career path (or lack of career right now).”
His mother, however, offers a slightly different perspective.
“It seems Kyle’s real journey has just begun and that photography and trains will likely continue to be a part of it.”
Mother may know best. Recently, while interning with the Urban League of Portland, Kyle photographed some of its events and produced its most recent annual report. His courses at Eugene allowed no time for photography classes, but he is currently investigating photography education options in Portland.
While railroads remain Weismann-Yee’s primary pictorial subject matter, his topics have expanded. Most recently, he has undertaken social subjects (see inset and fifth photo at left), including self-assigned coverage of the 2008 presidential election. His eyes light up at the mention of any ethnic-related railroad topic, from his ancestral connections to Chinese labor in the 1860s, to the relative lack of diversity among contemporary train crews in the northwest. Given railroading’s rich ethnic heritage, myriad possibilities exist for Weismann-Yee to combine his passions. The industrial history of Portland is already richer for his having found it; countless other railroad subjects remain to arouse his curiosity.
— Scott Lothes, January 2010
See more of Kyle’s work at pbase.com/kentonline.