Phoenix-based photographer Blair Bunting has perfected the art of capturing life in motion through his commercial work photographing dynamic images of moving cars, aircraft, and athletes. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic slowed everything down, he took a measured approach to a new project inspired by his childhood memories. One that involved high-speed freight trains and patience.
When I was a kid, my family would spend their summers in a small town in Central Illinois. There was little to do there, other than walk to the railroad tracks with my dad and wave at the passing trains.
It was these adolescent memories that drove Blair to pursue this project, which paid homage to his father, who first introduced Blair to photography. After he released the first series of images, he learned that his childhood wasn’t the only one marked with train tracks.
I have received many messages from people about what the series means to them and have kept shooting in hopes it will make other people’s days better.
The train project enabled Blair to continually shoot throughout the pandemic, as the subject matter didn’t require any close interaction with other people. He traveled to isolated spaces to shoot the moving machines on the tracks, and any people on the trains were well over the recommended 6ft social distance.
Photographing trains was a safe way for me to stay sharp behind the camera.
The shoots themselves required some planning. Blair would comb through Google Maps to find active train rails and would then try shooting the trains from different angles to produce more dynamic images. He also had to determine what would be the best time of day to shoot each photo, based on the surrounding landscape or the current weather patterns.
I realized that the darker hours are actually a little bit easier to photograph during as the clouds often roll in and even out the light.
Blair ventured throughout Arizona to capture both cities and rural areas for this project, but he repeatedly came back to the forests in the northern part of the state for its unique landscape. Once he arrived on location he typically waited a few hours, chatting with clients or catching up on emails, until the combination of elements lined up so Blair could capture the locomotive in action.
I would listen for a train and try to judge its speed before it was even within sight so that I could have the exposure set when it came by.
Though he traveled extensively for this project, it also hit close to home, when a train close to Blair’s town was nearly taken out by a recent wildfire.
When the evacuation notice for my house was lifted, the first thing I did was head out and create a shot of a train with the wildfire cloud in the background.
Blair’s determination was vital to the success of this series, and sometimes he found himself returning to the same train tracks several times to ensure that he captured the exact composition he envisioned.
One of the shots took 5 trips — each a three-hour journey — to get the train and the lighting to perfectly align.
While the scenery and skies varied through each shoot, Blair edited his photos to provide a cohesive look that would help tie each piece of the series together. His sequence of images takes the viewer on an expedition through America’s railways, to a time when riding the rails was essential to connecting people all across the country.
I wanted to make a series that was unique and identifiable.
The project has led to several offers for book deals and Blair has received interest in licensing the images. While he appreciates the response, he isn’t ready to release the series for commercial use yet. Blair sees the project as an opportunity to document and share memories of his past with his family. Through his imagery, he shares his own childhood experiences with his daughter and brings his journey full circle.
I wanted to tell the story of my experience during this time so that I could show my young daughter when she gets older.
Photographer: Blair Bunting