Eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia are rich in mountain railroading. The Louisville & Nashville, Norfolk & Western, Southern Railway, and Clinchfield Railroad all tapped the mining areas there to move coal to market, both domestic and export. These operations still exist to a lesser extent under successors CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern. It is here that this year’s Photography Award winner, Ron Flanary, has lived his entire life.
He was born in 1948, allowing him to witness the transition from steam to diesel motive power. Although he took his first photo in 1955, it was not until the early 1960s that he began pursuing photography regularly and building his skills. Most often, his lenses were trained on his favorite road, the L&N. Like many, he considers himself to be self-taught.
Flanary describes his first photo experience: “It started when I pressed the shutter on my grandfather’s ancient Kodak 616 camera with bellows on Easter Sunday 1955. That first train photo – taken at age 7 – was done after he realized that his arthritis wouldn’t allow him to crawl under a wire fence to get a closer look at an L&N coal train pileup in Artemus, Ky. Instead, he manually adjusted the camera’s focus, shutter speed, and aperture setting, and helped me to get under the fence – and much closer to an embankment overlooking the derailment. I followed his instructions to the letter: ‘Just look at that viewfinder to be sure you can see the train, be as still as you can, and slowly press the shutter.’ I did – and my lifetime adventure with railroad photography was under way. Roll one, frame one.”
Around 1958 or 1959, it dawned on Flanary that he could acquire a camera and take photos of his own. He went through several types, including a Kodak Brownie and an Argus, settling on the 35mm format in 1964. Initially not knowing any other railfan photographers, he turned to a local portrait photographer for advice.
He also tried a 2¼ x2¼ medium-format Yashica, but returned to 35mm when the benefits didn’t seem to justify the use of larger film. Since 1972, he’s stayed with Nikon exclusively.
Having access to a darkroom, Flanary enjoyed developing film and making prints. In hindsight, he notes that having control over the final image in that setting was an early form of what Adobe Photoshop digital software now makes commonplace.
Around 1968, after having earlier experimented with color film and now having access to a slide projector, he transitioned to shooting slide film. In 2005, he felt that advances in digital technology warranted adopting that medium. He owns three such cameras now.
Flanary enjoys the company of other railroad photographers, and cites as inspirations Ted Benson, Blair Kooistra, Greg McDonnell, Joe McMillan, Mel Patrick, and Steve Patterson, all of whom are previous R&LHS Photography Award recipients.
It was natural that from the outset he’s been involved with the L&N Historical Society, serving variously as director and president. It was in the pages of its magazine that his photos, set with articles and captions reflecting strong first-hand knowledge, were showcased. Always willing to help, he served as the magazine’s editor for many years and still has an editorial role.
Flanary has contributed to other periodicals and publications, with nearly 70 articles appearing in Trains, Classic Trains, and Railfan & Railroad magazines. Beyond them, additional pieces have appeared in various national publications, including those of other railroad historical societies. The total of all articles to his credit is on the order of 250. Now retired, he has begun writing bi-weekly columns, illustrated with his photos, in two local newspapers.
He has authored, or co-authored, eight books, all heavily illustrated with his own photos. Beyond that, he’s talented in painting, and his own artwork has graced the covers of several of those books. Titles include L&N’s Cumberland Valley Division, The L&N in The Appalachians, L&N Diesel Locomotives, and The Southern Railway. His photos have illustrated numerous books of other authors.
Flanary has been a presenter at the annual Winterail photo gathering on the West Coast, as well as on several occasions at Ohio’s Summerail, where he also served as master of ceremonies, and three times at “Conversations,” the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. CRP&A Executive Director Scott Lothes notes that Flanary is the only member who has presented there in three mediums – photography, art, and music. One year Flanary, a long-time trumpet player, took the stage with L&N veteran Charlie Castner accompanying him on piano.
After retiring as executive director of the LENOWISCO Regional Development Authority, Flanary continues to live in Big Stone Gap, Va., with his wife of 53 years, Wilma. Along with two others, he is currently working on a book about the 42 members of L&N’s Class M-1 2-8-4 “Big Emma” steam locomotive group. The book’s proceeds will go to support the L&N Historical Society Archives in Chattanooga, Tenn.