E.E. Burke's Best of the West: One Man's Quest To Recreate A Vanished Era

Today, my Best of the West guest is award-winning photographer Matthew Malkiewicz, whose images of steam locomotives grace the covers of many of my books. 

Matthew's romance with steam railroads and his quest to recreate a vanished era through the lens of his camera has resulted in a collection of some of the most awe-inspiring photographs of steam trains I've ever seen. You don't just look at Matthew's photos. You feel them.
Train on a Snowy Day by Matthew Malkiewicz, 
"My passion gravitates to the machines of yesteryear, fire-breathing monsters that seem to be alive whether you have your hand against the polished steel or you are two bluffs away looking across acres of prairie grass."

Matthew's steam train images appear on the covers of two books in my Steam! Romance and Rails series: A Dangerous Passion and Fugitive Hearts, and will be on every book in my current series, The Bride Train

The blending of Matthew's visual storytelling and my books happened by serendipity. 

Both of my historical romance series are set during the era of America's railroad expansion westward. I really wanted cover backgrounds with authentic steam railroad images, and there were so few really good ones on stock sites. 

While doing research for my books, I came across Matthew's website. His magnificent images of the old steam trains captivated me. Incredibly, through modern-day photographs, he opened a door to the past...a past I needed to recreate. 
I consider myself fortunate to showcase his work on the covers of my books, and I wanted to share his unique brand of visual storytelling with GLIAS readers.

Meet Matthew

Matthew's fascination with trains started as an infant watching a toy train run around the Christmas tree. He’s been hooked ever since. 

Completely self taught, first with 35mm and medium format film and more recently digital cameras and Photoshop, creating timeless images is all just a passionate hobby. 

Born in New Jersey, he also lived in California and Colorado, which ignited the drive to travel and capture the country’s modern-day tourist steam train operations. Vacations are now planned around and spent photographing special railroad-related events, private train photo charters and historical places. Matthew won first place in the 2015 Center for Railroad Photography & Art competition, a 2016 Hasselblad Masters of Photography finalist, and has recently been featured on the CNN International, Weather Channel, DPReview and SLR Lounge websites, and published in Trains Magazine and Shutterbug Magazine. He is senior designer for an instrumentation/electrical/process-control engineering firm. 

You can see more of Matthew's work on his website: Lost Tracks of Time.

E.E.: How did you get started “shooting” trains?
Matthew: It was more an awakening than an idea, it all started at the age of 4 months. I have a photo of myself watching a toy train run around the Christmas tree as a baby, it must have hooked me well. As a kid I had a model train layout on a piece of plywood in the basement, and in my teens I received my first camera, which I aimed at every train I saw. After a long period in my life without cameras or trains, a job assignment in Colorado (a train mecca) during 2005 rekindled both hobbies, driving me to buy my first digital camera. At the same time I discovered the power of Photoshop, soon after I created my website to showcase my rapidly growing collection of photographs. It’s been a snowball effect ever since.

E.E.: How long have you been a photographer? What did you do before that?
My full-time career is in the engineering field. Photography is only a hobby. Something I'm very passionate about. What I most love about my hobby is that there is no pressure to make something that appeals to others or meet certain requirements.  Furthermore, I do not have to worry about looming deadlines.  I have the creative freedom to capture what interests me most and perfect my work at my leisure.

E.E.: What are some of your favorite locations or settings?
Matthew: I concentrate on vintage steam locomotives from all across the United States. Now they have second lives as tourist operations--the fortunate trains that survived scrapping after the fleet was retired in the middle of the last century. Modern day railroads, both passenger and freight revenue, are pulled by either diesel or electric engines. My passion gravitates to the machines of yesteryear, fire-breathing monsters that seem to be alive whether you have your hand against the polished steel or you are two bluffs away looking across acres of prairie grass. I envision how it must have been back in the day and try to create photographs as timeless as possible to depict what I consider a vibrantly better and sadly vanished time.

E.E.: Any photos that are particularly special, and why?

Matthew: This photo of a little boy watching the oncoming train is my favorite. A pure case of luck, being at the right place at the right time, ready with the proper equipment. This is from deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I was on a photo excursion; our train was pulled onto a siding to let the regular scheduled tourist train pass by. I had my camera at my side, as I always do, preset and ready for anything to happen. Just lift it to my face and shoot. The child was the son of one of our train crew. The shot was completely unstaged and unrehearsed. He stepped in front of me and sat on the rail to watch the run by. The scene was created on its own; I did little more than set the focus point, shoot a test shot, and then capture the image. I feel it’s my best because of the spontaneity of it all. So many of my better shots come from either free styling or completely winging it, feeding off the adrenaline rush of thinking quick on my feet so I don't miss the opportunity.

E.E.: Why steam locomotives? 
2016 Hasselblad
Masters of Photography Finalist

Matthew: The allure of capturing images that stimulate one’s senses is what drew me to photograph steam-powered locomotives. I wanted to bring to life the smells of the coal fueling the engine, the sound of the steam hissing, and the earth rattling as these magnificent machines sit idling or are in motion. These machines of steam are alive. Each is unique, with its own personality, which changes from day to day. 

At a state of rest, the locomotive is groaning, sweating, simmering, creaking, spitting. At speed, it’s controlled madness - the ground shakes, the sound deafening.

E.E.: What’s the coolest train you’ve ever photographed and why?

Matthew: Halloween weekend 2011 at the East Broad Top Railroad in Pennsylvania started off as any other. I visited many times in the past and was prepared for a typical day of photo shooting. I had set out to photograph the local abandonments and the old right-of-ways from days past. I was looking forward to chasing an excursion train or two; including the evening trains also. My first day was uneventful and exactly what I hoped for. But, as fate would have it, all of that would change the next day thanks to Mother Nature. 

As a seasoned railfan, I’m used to and prepared for all weather conditions. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can keep me away from capturing that awe-inspiring shot of a majestic steam locomotive.  However, the Halloween nor'easter (also known as Snowtober) would certainly test my fortitude. 

The storm produced unusually early season snowfall across the northeastern United States, breaking records for total accumulations. In fact, in some cities Halloween was cancelled and kids were left with no treats. For me, the fun was about to begin. As the morning passed on, the snow intensified. By the time the train made its way out of town for its first run of the day, we had experienced near whiteout conditions and things got real quiet. 

With a typical steam train, you would expect to hear wheels clacking against the rails and steam puffing from the stack. But to my surprise, the snow seemed to envelop and muffle the familiar sounds of the locomotive. It was clear from the deserted train cars and streets that people had planned to spend a warm and cozy day indoors. But nature seemed less prepared for the storm. As the train bellowed down the snowy rails, it was visible that the pine trees struggled to support the weight of the fresh snow, and the cornfields became covered in a white blanket. The autumn-colored leaves indicated that perhaps the trees were also caught off-guard by the storm. 

An image from the day, aptly named “Train on a Snow Day” (See top photograph), placed second in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s 2014 Awards.

E.E.: Have you ever considered shooting romance cover models?

Matthew: A major theme that runs through my portfolio is the interaction of man and machine. It fascinates me to no end; I strive to capture him in his element without distracting or disturbing. The human element completes the story, and is the link that us rail fans live the dream through. I never envisioned anything from my portfolio being featured as part of a cover of a novel. If the opportunity presented itself for me to collaborate with a model for a romance cover I would certainly jump at the opportunity.

E.E.: What’s the best thing about “on location” shooting?

Matthew: My gallery of work requires me to be outdoors, where the weather oftentimes is
not in my favor.  The natural tendency for newcomers is to head indoors when the weather deteriorates.  I have found that my best images were taken during extreme conditions, and also before sunrise and after sunset.  Weather and light dramatically alter the mood of the images. Weather is my friend, adds so much atmosphere and character. 

Rain, snow, sleet, wind, fog, humidity; sunrises and sunsets. These are my best times, where the majority of my portfolio was created. Being an ambient and natural light photographer, I've learned to expect anything, and to adjust accordingly. I enjoy the quick thinking and adrenaline rush that comes with dealing with things out of my control, weather being one of them. Rarely do I set out with a vision in mind, I let the weather conditions, light, and time of day dictate how I react. Patience is key, as is persistence. The experience of being alone in nature is serene: you're there amongst the most beautiful scenery around, caught up in the landscape, these great machines pass by billowing smoke, it's surreal and magical.

E.E.: What are your favorite books, or type of book? Any favorite authors?

Matthew: Naturally, I would have to say my favorite books are photo books by the classic railroad photographers from back in the heyday of steam. My list includes David Plowden, Victor Hand, Jim Shaughnessy, Don Ball, O. Winston Link, Ted Benson, and Joel Jensen.

E.E.: Do you enjoy seeing your work interpreted on book covers? Is it how you might have imagined, or completely different?

Matthew: Yes I do. We all interpret a scene differently, it's what makes us individuals. I enjoy seeing how others, such as the graphic artist of a book cover, takes my photograph and add their own style, flair, and techniques to enhance. The final results have been beyond my expectations; very pleasantly surprised every time.

E.E.: What dreams have been realized as a result of your photography?

Matthew: Throughout life, we all seek our own way in the pursuit of happiness…to find something that’s going to set us apart from the pack, mold our life into something special, and discover the sense in it all.  We test different things to determine what will help us in our quest, push us beyond our own limits, and achieve our dreams. My galleries capture my travels and experiences across our countryside.  Some near home, others far away and remote, all uniquely memorable.  It’s a passion that has taken me to where I am in life today.  My hope is that someday my portfolio will be an inspiration to others interested in this hobby I truly love.  I’m confident that one day I will capture my most spectacular image.  Until then, each photo tells the story of lost time…remembered.

E.E.: What inspires you daily? 

Matthew: Looking at the works of my fellow photographers, both friends and strangers; the ones who are consistently stepping out of their comfort zone, pushing the outside of the envelope to freeze in time, with their camera, what their mind’s vision sees. Not afraid of failing while trying something different - creating the artwork of photography.

A question for our readers...

Which of Matthew's photographs are your favorite, and why?

I'm giving away a copy of two books that feature Matthew's photography: Fugitive Hearts, 2016 National Reader's Choice Awards finalist, and Valentine's Rose, Book 1 in The Bride Train series. 

Just leave a comment and enter the raffle. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Incredibly beautiful pictures. I particularly love the new day dawning of the bottom one.

    1. Mary, thanks for coming by! I love that one, too. It's on my book Valentine's Rose. Did you notice? ;)

  2. i like them all but the ones with the train and blue sky or the snow are best

    1. Patricia, thanks for coming by. I love how dramatic the colors are, and also the mood in the black and white. He's very good at setting mood and tone.

  3. I love the evening/night views with the steam--the first one up top with the smoke all around it as it's next to the station is probably my favorite, but it's hard to pick as they are all so good.

    1. I agree, Diane. It's hard to pick one. Every time I see his new pictures I have new favorites. Thanks for coming by!

  4. Love the photos. We had a train track go through our farm, up on a forty foot grade, very close to the house. The bed would shake at night in my bedroom upstairs in the old 1870 house when the train went by. Hobos, fires set by sparks, one derailment...these photos bring back lots of memories of growing up beside the tracks.

    1. Great memories! I didn't live close to tracks, but I loved the distant sound of the train whistle. Thanks for coming by Linda.

  5. Love this post and so pleased to meet Matthew Malkiewicz. Railroading is in my DNA. My grandfather was an engineer with the Santa Fe Railroad for 30 years and these pics brought many fond memories. I will follow Matthew's career and photos from now on. Thanks, Elizabeth!

    1. Carra, I didn't know that about you! You and Matthew will get along famously. I believe has images of Santa Fe trains on his website. You'll enjoy browsing the galleries. Thanks for coming by!

  6. WOW what a wonderful post, Elisabeth! I have always loved trains. When I was little, I begged my mom for a train set, but she told me that was "a boy's toy"--never got it. I got to indulge when I had my own son and could buy all the trains I wanted for him, then! LOL I remember so many nights I spent with my grandparents who lived in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma, Calera, which had once been known as "Cale Switch" or "Cale's Switch" where the trains would take on water. At night, you could hear the whistle blow--such a comforting sound--and I got to where if it was a few minutes late, I'd wake up and wonder, "Where is it?" until it blew.

    My cousin and I would go to the railroad tracks there to get away from the younger kids (siblings and cousins)--lots of great memories. Thanks so much to Matthew for keeping these memories alive and well with his photography, and to you, for the stories you write!

    1. Meant to say, I especially loved that picture of the little boy in the engineer's hat, watching the train on the nearby rail. That is priceless.

    2. Cheryl, thanks for coming by. I loved trains, too. Never got a set either. My youngest daughter loved trains and we bought her an entire train set. Guess who played with it as much as she did! ;)

  7. I love the last photograph that sunrise view is amazing or is it sunset? I'm not too sure

    1. Natasha, good question. I assumed it was early morning. I'll have to ask! Thanks for coming by.

  8. My eyes keep going back to the last pick... just love the setting!

  9. First and foremost - I thank E.E. for asking me to participate in this blog, for choosing my photos to be part of her book covers, and introducing all of you to my website and photography.

    And I also thank everyone who has left replies here, on Facebook, and the personal email sent my way. Very much appreciated.

    To answer Natasha's question, that photo was taken during a foggy sunrise in October of 2014 at Yacolt, Washington. Very little Photoshopping to that image - that is an accurate representation of how the day started.

    Matthew Malkiewicz

    1. Wow, the photographs are wonderful. I will have to read the book!

  10. As a long time rail photographer and admirer of Matthews work, I can only be glad to see his work getting out from the confines of the hobby and being known and appreciated by a wider audience. E.E., all I can say is you have superb taste in photographers!

  11. That last pic in the post is my favorite. It looks like a very early crisp morning and is just beautiful!

  12. aldisbroz@gmail.comMay 31, 2016 at 6:45 PM

    Reading the review about how E.E. Burke found the Steam Locomotive pictures and producer of the same, is making me want to read her books about the Old Wild West. It sounds like her writing would be very captivating.

  13. Great interview with Matthew. I could spend hours on his website- Lost Tracks of Time. Beautiful images, "Madness" pictured above is one of my favorites.

  14. I've have recently gotten to know Matthew personally after admiring his work for several years and his character mirrors his vision....top notch! Thanks for sharing some of his insight and comments here!