Photographer Oren Helbok has captured the essence of the Railroads in the Coal Region in this new exhibition. This collection features over 30 large photos of trains and locales all over Schuylkill, Berks, Columbia and surrounding counties. A Happy Hour Opening Reception is planned for July 9 from 6-9 pm and will include live music, wine, beer, and complimentary refreshments. Join us for a cool evening on July 9. Exhibition will run through August 28th.
Oren Helbok's Artist Statement
Born in the Bronx in 1965, I missed the age of steam on our nation’s railroads, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to relive it where and when possible. Although I ran away from a steam locomotive the first time I saw one, at age 2 (at the Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern Railroad in Berks County), I quickly turned around, and since 1972 I have photographed and ridden steam trains from approximately coast to coast. My father, John, spent thousands of hours with me at trackside, “chasing trains” around the Northeast, and my mother, Miriam, also aided and abetted my passion including by taking me on trips by rail across Canada and around Great Britain.
My father gave me my first camera before I turned seven years old, and later successively my second one and my third and my fourth, through all of which I ran black & white film developed in “wet darkrooms” (including at least one bathroom, one bedroom, and a kitchen). My father taught me the technical aspects of developing and printing; I learned composition from looking at his photographs and from the ones by the railfan greats that appeared in the many, many books and magazines about trains that I pored over starting before I could read – images by Lucius Beebe, Charles Clegg, Philip Hastings, Jim Shaughnessy, Richard Steimheimer, and many, many more. By age five I had learned by heart every photo in David Plowden’s book Farewell to Steam; over time, I also absorbed Plowden’s other work, images of steel mills and barns and bridges and landscapes. Later on, I discovered Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Andreas Feininger, and Jack Delano. All of these photo-journalists and documentarians worked in a world that, born too late, I could never experience for myself, but what they captured made deep and lasting impressions on me, and I want to make my own images of similar subjects: technology and infrastructure and people interacting with them; the collision of humanity and the natural world; and, increasingly in my middle age, people for their own sake. When making my own photos, I try to follow in the masters’ footsteps – but as a midget chasing after giants, it would of course require an impossible leap for me to get from any one of their footsteps to the next, so I take lots of little steps.
After having children starting in the late 1990s, I took a decade-plus-long break from “serious” photography (I took many thousands of snapshots of the kids during that time) before starting up again, with a borrowed digital camera, in 2009; I shortly bought one of my own and never looked back. Now using my second and third DSLRs, I have made close to 100,000 digital images. No longer working in a darkroom, I use free, open-source GIMP editing software – “the poor man’s Photoshop” – and have others do my printing.
Having learned photography using only black & white film and paper, and with the masters’ black & white photographs as my guiding stars, I still work naturally in that idiom, and I tend to gravitate towards it. Rarely, however, do I decide whether to process a digital image in black & white or color before looking at it on my computer screen; the photos on display here – from when I aimed the camera to when I ordered each print on-line – represent at least as much instinct as conscious thought. This quote from Walker Evans resonates deeply with me: “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.” I make images that feel right to me.
Since moving to central Pennsylvania in 1992, I have worked as a carpenter, furniture-maker, zoning officer, and independent school administrator; I now direct The Exchange, the non-profit community arts organization which I helped found in 2009 on Main Street in Bloomsburg. In 2001, my wife, potter Sara Baker, and I joined a dozen other artists to open the Artspace Gallery cooperative, now on Center Street in Bloom, and I served as its first treasurer; my involvement as a member of Artspace lasted as long as I made furniture. Since 2014, I have volunteered with Railway Restoration Project 113 in Minersville as the semi-official photographer and Web site maintainer. Among all of the non-profits that I have worked with in Columbia, Montour, and Schuylkill Counties, the years of service now add up to more than my age. I live with my family on East 5th Street in Bloomsburg, within easy bicycling distance of almost everything – and also by good fortune closer to more operating steam locomotives than in any comparable area of the United States.
For more of my work, both photography and writing, please visit WhereSteamLives.net; for The Exchange, ExchangeArts.org; for Project 113,