Turning Point: Station Man

Currently a lecturer, teacher, and writer, Sam Abell’s celebrated career includes positions as a contract and staff photographer and photographer-in-residence at National Geographic magazine. This 1959 photo of his father at the Painesville, Ohio, train station is the homepage image of his website, samabell-thephotographiclife.com.


© Sam Abell

“I was 14 when I took the photo, and the camera was the Rolleicord my dad used to photograph weddings on weekends. He was a geography teacher and ran the camera club at our high school, and he tried to bring photography to things that he had a longstanding interest in, like circuses, trains, quarries, and riverboats. It was always easy, always enjoyable being along with him; low key, no pressure, just mellow. He gently coached me, but he never set things up for me. He’d just say things…like ‘Look for strong diagonals,’ ‘Remember the “S” curve,’ ‘Keep the sun at your back,’ ‘Bad weather makes good pictures,’ and a favorite ‘The unusual wins out over the usual.’

“[This is the] first photograph I made that mattered to anyone other than me…In 1960 [it] won a small prize in the Kodak National High School Photo Contest. Even though it was [only] honorable mention, the disappointment of that did not last. What lasted was the excitement and the energy and optimism that it gave me about photography. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to my photographic life without that little award.

“My father was pleased. The picture has a strong diagonal, the sun’s near my back and the weather is bad.”

This column is the result of our belief that many accomplished photographers can indicate one photograph of particular significance to their careers. It’s also the result of our desire to hear their stories.