R&LHS’s Fred A. and Jane R. Stindt Photography Award is presented annually for a significant body of work that makes an outstanding contribution to the photographic interpretation of North American railroading. This year’s awardee is a photographer whose work – though it spans half a century and covers many railroad subjects – is indelibly imprinted on our minds for a single theme: winter railroading. Dick Dorn’s images of trains battling the elements are dramatic and memorable; they speak, too, of his determination and of the endurance required to get them. Photographer and historian Shirley Burman Steinheimer tells of her first meeting with Dorn at a book signing for her husband Dick Steinheimer and Ted Benson’s Growing Up with Trains II, there he was “on the cover, squatting in the snow with his dog Tarke, ready to photograph the westbound Amtrak. He had no aversion to doing what it takes to get the picture including freezing his rump.” Neither does Dorn have any aversion to being associated with snowdrifts, rotary plows, and flangers; on the contrary, he says, “It opened doors for me.”
Born in 1946, Dorn is a native Northern Californian (he prefers the italics). His interest in railroading was sparked by family dinners at Spenger’s Restaurant, located opposite the Berkeley SP train station. He and his brother were entranced by the trains they saw there, though it wasn’t until college that he made the decision to focus on photography rather than model railroading. He graduated from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., with a B.S. degree in Fisheries Management. But it was elementary school teaching he loved and devoted a 35-year career to. His classroom had windows that opened out to views of the Sacramento Northern station in Yuba City and he admits there were occasions when his teaching included aspects of rail photography.
Former Editor and Publisher Kevin Keefe in Trains magazine once dubbed him “the Ansel Adams of Donner.” Yosemite Valley was to Adams as Donner Pass is to Dorn, but there’s more in that epithet besides black & white photography, careful composition and lighting, and a passion for the outdoors. Adams once wrote that “the highest function” of photography is “to relate the world of nature to the world of man…;” Dorn’s photography does just that. Mostly self-taught, Dorn thrived under the mentorship of Steinheimer and Benson. “Stein had a huge, gigantic influence on my photography,” he says. He carried a copy of Steinheimer’s Backwoods Railroads of the West with him on railfan trips for inspiration. “Ted had a giant influence on me as well. Early on, he critiqued my shooting and printing and helped me develop darkroom techniques.”
Dorn’s work includes two books he co-authored: the first, with Richard Steinheimer: Diesels Over Donner: the Mountain Soul of the Southern Pacific (Interurban Press, 1989); and 72-82: Western Pacific’s Final Decade, with Ted Benson, Dale Sanders and Dave Stanley (White River, 2014). He has penned more than 25 articles for a wide array of magazines, including Classic Trains, CTC Board, Passenger Train Journal, Pacific Rail News, Railfan & Railroad, and Trains.
“For outstanding achievement as a photographer and dedication as a role model in the railfan community,” Dorn received Winterail’s annual Hall of Fame Award in 2006. The very same day he was informed of his Stindt Photography Award, he learned he’d been awarded the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society’s Guy Dunscomb Award for Outstanding Achievement. “I was on pins and needles and I could hardly sleep that night,” he confesses. He also has the distinction of having a photographic technique named after him, coined by Ted Benson: Dick Dorn Memorial Sidelighting. It refers to his talent for capturing the glint of light reflected off the sides of railroad equipment. Most often seen in his black & white photography, it’s also present in some of his color work. Its purpose, he explains, is to “make rolling stock jump off the paper at you.”
Dorn is not a railfan who bemoans the passage of time and complains about graffiti or color scheme changes. “Railroading is as interesting today as when I took my first picture,” he claims. “Photography should be enjoyable and when it’s not anymore, that’s when I’ll stop.” Not out of place are these comments from Shirley Burman Steinheimer, who remembers how much Dorn’s visits to her ailing husband were appreciated. “When Stein could no longer drive, Dorn would take him on railfan expeditions, giving me a much-needed break in my caretaking duties. I saw [Dorn’s] beautiful railroad images, heard of his travels and read his stories, but mostly I saw his heart. And as Stein lost most of his ability to speak, he still could murmur to me when Dorn had visited, that is a ‘good guy.’”
—Gregory P. Ames