Sent to The Frederick Leader and The Frederick Press, June 14, 2011
|R.H. Birkhead at the Frederick M-K-T depot, 1968. Copyright David Plowden.|
Photo captured end of 60-year career
Ray Birkhead was station agent at Frederick’s M-K-T depot for forty years, from 1928 until 1968. Before that, he worked in numerous other positions for the railroad in a career that spanned approximately sixty years.
There was nothing unusual about Birkhead’s last day on the job in the summer of 1968, except that the quiet afternoon was broken by a young photographer who wandered into the depot and struck up a conversation.
Birkhead could not have known that the photographer, a New Yorker named David Plowden, would become one of the nation’s most respected photographers. Neither could Plowden have known on that day in 1968 he would take a photograph in the old Frederick depot that would be one of the most memorable of his career.
Today David Plowden lives in Winnetka, Illinois. More than 20 books of his photographs have been published, he has taught and lectured at several prominent universities, he continues to work as a photographer, and he still lectures often.
I spoke with him last week to seek his approval to use the photo that he took of Ray Birkhead at the Frederick M-K-T depot. We had a long, fascinating conversation. He granted my photo request and explained the circumstances of how the portrait was made.
In 1968 Plowden had received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was travelling the country, taking photos of things that interested him. Then, as now, he had a fascination with rural America, wide open landscapes, and elements of American life that were passing away.
He happened into Frederick that day in 1968 and explored. He noted our grain elevators and the fact that there were two old depots – the Frisco depot which was then located on West Grand, and the Katy depot at 300 South Ninth. The M-K-T logo posted on the Katy depot caught his attention and he stopped to look around. Mr. Birkhead was the only one there on that summer afternoon. Plowden looked around the depot and made casual conversation with Mr. Birkhead. He noticed that Birkhead seemed to be putting things in place, and realized that it was after 5:00 p.m. He apologized for keeping Mr. Birkhead after closing time.
That’s when Ray Birkhead told David Plowden that he was retiring and that after 60 years, this was his last day with the company. Plowden told him that the occasion should be marked with a photograph, and he took a portrait of Ray Birkhead that afternoon with the stark simplicity of the M-K-T depot’s office as a background.
After the picture was taken, Birkhead and Plowden walked outside. Birkhead locked the door behind them, then he dropped his keys in the mail slot. “For the next man,” he said.
Whether by circumstance or destiny, David Plowden had arrived at the fading old Katy Depot in Frederick, Oklahoma, at the precise time to capture the end of a 60-year career. David Plowden is still awed by that fact.
Ray Birkhead never saw the portrait. It was almost a year later before the photo was prepared and Plowden had an opportunity to mail it to Birkhead. The package was returned, marked “undeliverable.” Birkhead had apparently left Frederick.
He died in Florida in 1971.
The photo that Plowden took that day has been published several times – first in a 1972 Plowden book. It is also included in Plowden’s most recent book, Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden (Norton, 2010).
When we talked, Plowden told me that he lectures often and he always shows the portrait of Ray Birkhead and tells the story that led to its taking. Wherever he speaks, it always draws an emotional response.
I told Plowden that I would ask this column’s readers for information about Ray Birkhead or his family. Anyone who has stories about Birkhead or knows whereabouts of his descendents should e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I told Plowden that I would pass along any information.
Plowden is known for his powerful black-and-white photographs that depict images and landscapes in America’s rural and urban settings. In addition to his books, Plowden’s work is included in the permanent collections of many art museums, including the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Some of his amazing work can be found at his website, www.davidplowden.com.
Plowden’s most recent book, Requiem for Steam is available at Amazon.
The entire body of his work, including the complete archive of his notes, negatives and prints, has been bequeathed to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Joe Wynn is a member of the Tillman County Historical Society’s board of directors. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.