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A Photographic Homage

For Roy Inman, it's not just the technique but the subject he honors

Photographer Roy Inman, who uses vintage flash bulbs in his work, took this photo when the classic Milwaukee Road Skytop Lounge car and a vintage Milwaukee Road passenger cars visited Union Station. (Photo: Roy Inman) Photographer Roy Inman, who uses vintage flash bulbs in his work, took this photo when the classic Milwaukee Road Skytop Lounge car and a vintage Milwaukee Road passenger cars visited Union Station. (Photo: Roy Inman)
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Roy Inman stands in the driveway of his home in Lenexa, Kansas. Nearby, a bank of reflectors perch on light stands loaded with vintage flash bulbs. Inman, along with his brother George Inman and neighbor Bob Agne are testing equipment in preparation for a late-night flash bulb shoot at the Midland Railway Historical Society’s restored Santa Fe Depot in Baldwin, Kansas.

Inman has his finger on a trigger that will set off all the lights.

“Okay, ready. Countdown. Three. Two. One,” Inman says.

With a pop, only one bulb flashes brightly and the rest remain dark. Clearly there is more work to do, and George begins the long process of checking electrical connections.

Inman said he’s often asked why he uses flash bulbs instead of strobe for his evening photo shoots.

“Well, No. 1, it’s an homage to O. Winston Link, one of our heroes,” Inman says.  “No. 2, the amount of strobes it would take to replace a single No. 50 flash bulb, it would be, like, ten strobes to replace it. And, for the jazz man, because it’s just living on the edge. It’s just a real rush. And when you get too close to the bulbs when they go off, sometimes the hair will stand up on the back of the neck because they ionize the air when they fire.”

Inman discovered the work of photographer O. Winston Link while doing research for a photographic project at Kansas City’s Union Station.

“As I’m looking around to try and find old photos and artifacts, I discover the work of O. Winston Link,” he says. “For 1955-1960, he documented the last years of steam railroading on the Norfolk and Western Railroad. It was the last railroad in North America to run steam on the main line. And the only way he could figure out how to do it at that time was to use flash bulbs.”

Inman said that one of the most charming aspects of Link’s work was the full picture of life that Link caught in his images. “He (Link) didn’t photograph just the trains, he wanted to include the environment and to capture some of the era, too.”

Inman said he strives to do the same with his locomotive imagery.

“In the spirit of O. Winston Link, I like to put the train in context with the depot, with the surrounding area,” Inman says.

Inman said he hopes to share his enthusiasm for trains with a new generation.

“In 1950, 95 percent of people had ridden a train. The only contact people have with a train now is when it slows them down at the railroad crossing, so it’s also a way of connecting the past with the future and also how spectacular and interesting and dramatic trains can really be.”

As the sun sinks behind the trees, Inman arrives at the old Santa Fe Depot in Baldwin, Kansas. Inman and his team of volunteers immediately begin setting up light stands and reflectors in preparation for the night ahead. Inman unloads his collection vintage flash bulbs.

“Flash bulbs are so powerful for the size and weight,” Inman says. “You have to have so much energy stored in that bulb, which turns into heat and light. When they go off you can be standing five feet away and still feel the heat from those bulbs. A lot of energy is expended in a very short amount of time which, of course, what you want from photography.”

With some vintage bulbs clocking in at 70 years old, getting them to fire is a challenge. At the darkened station, Inman assesses the scene and declares that the moment has arrived.

“Ok, let’s go ahead and shoot,” Inman says. As he presses the shutter the area fills with the light of 40 flash bulbs.

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