When I was growing up my father built a model railroad. Its first incarnation was nothing more than a plywood sheet with a couple of tracks running around a station, but it dominated our small garage. It later came to reside in the basement of our new house where it expanded; stucco mountains and lichen forests appeared, a small town settled next to the lake in the valley, and the number of trains passing through increased with every model train show we attended. We’d buy stacks of old issues of Model Railroader Magazine, and while I’d be envisioning the vast miniature empires I might someday rule over, my father would point out photos from the magazine and say, “That’s one of Bob Boudreau’s. He lives here.”
In my young life it was one of my first brushes with celebrity: Mr. Dressup, Fred Penner, and Bob Boudreau. He was the Annie Leibovitz of the model railroading world. King of a niche market, with 32 covers and 851 photos featured in magazines like Model Railroading, Railroad Model Craftsman, and the big one, Model Railroader (obviously these people don’t mess around when it comes to naming their publications). His basement workshop has wall to wall cover photos and awards, which he’s won for both his photography and his work as a model builder.
He’s a self-starter when it came to model railroads, and has been a shrewd businessman from an early age, employing the barter system to get a start in a hobby that has lasted him nearly a lifetime, “As a young fella I was just playing with toys, dinky cars and stuff like that. I was always asking my parents for a train set for Christmas, and I never got one. I found out later that my mother thought they were too expensive. So I used to trade toys in school. I don’t know how old I was, ten or eleven. One guy had a Lionel train set and I traded him some of my stuff for a small set. I set that up in my parents basement in Moncton where I lived. Low ceilings and wet floors in the spring, but I had fun.”
“I had quite an elaborate model railroad as a teenager. It was probably beyond what a lot of the adults were doing. I guess some things just come natural. Some people sing, some people dance, I can’t do either.”
In high school, as might be expected at that point in any young man’s life, his interests turned away from the typically solitary hobby, to the perennial favourites: girls, and cars. He shelved his train set, and began hanging around drag race tracks. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be his introduction to photography, “I belonged to the [drag racing] club in Moncton. I was in the classification line, drawing numbers on the windows, but after that I didn’t have anything to do, so I borrowed my father’s old roll film camera and took some pictures. That was pretty nice, so then I bought a 35mm range finder camera, then I bought a single lens reflex, then a couple of used zoom lens, then a better zoom lens, another camera, and just going on from there.”
While Bob’s drag racing photos proved popular, selling to the fans and drivers alike, it was the opportunity to push his skills further that brought him back to modelling. He began shooting model railway cars and engines against a modelled diorama that had been built by a friend, and using a pinhole camera adapted with a wide angle lens to achieve the effect of a tiny world made large. Seeing rewarding results, his collection of both camera equipment and model engines grew well beyond the scale of the average hobbyist. He joined clubs for both photographers, and model makers. He’s been a long time active member in the Model Railroad Association, displaying a well-known section of track at train shows featuring his popular model of a sawmill that exploded outside of Alma in the 19th century.
“I’ve often said to people I don’t know if I’m a modeller that takes pictures, or a photographer that builds models. It’s either or.”
As both a serious photographer, and a serious model builder, his success has come largely from the level of detail invested in his models. His buildings are produced from design plans, based off of real buildings, and sometimes works of imagination. He tends towards the more exotic; never the straightforward run of the mill farmhouse, but the half dilapidated version of the same building is always a possibility. Many of his works are built from scratch, constructing whole buildings scaled down using coffee stir sticks, and individually weathering the boards by hand using stains, and wearing down edges, adding wood grain, and knots. That amount of dedicated can mean over a hundred hours put into every building, but the end product has paid off, “My friend Gerry Gilliland, he’s a good modeller too. We did pretty good in the contests around. One time we went together to the North Eastern Region Convention in Quebec City. They come from New York State right up to Quebec, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland. We though, ‘Oh, we’re little fish in a big pond!’ It was funny in a nice kind of way, ‘Bob Boudreau, first. Gerry Gilliland, second. Gerry Gilliland, first. Bob Boudreau, second.’ Well they started laughing, because we started going up there back and forth. We did real good, which blew our minds. Here are these guys from little Saint John going up and cleaning their clocks. It was a nice feeling, but kind of embarrassing in a nice way.”
“When you do something you really like you don’t take notice of the time.”
These days Bob has slowed down. He’s sold off most of his engines, and packed away his display track. He even talks of selling off some of the pieces, including his famous exploded sawmill. He does the occasional online review for models he’s constructed, but hasn’t submitted photographs to magazines in a few years now. As anyone who has even built a layout knows, for every hour spent running the trains, there’s another one that was spent working under the table. “If Model Railroading was still around I probably would have kept on going, but I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. In fact, my portable model railroad I don’t bring to the club anymore. I did it for twenty-five years and it got to be too much crawling under the tables. I was never really one into running trains. Kind of funny being into a hobby like this. I thought about making an O scale shelf layout, but it would be mostly a photo diorama for me. I could make it go, but I’m more of a builder and a photographer. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, but I’m getting too old for that shit.”
If you want to see more of Bob’s work he’ll hopefully still be found at local model train shows, or you can check out his webpage.
“I probably made more in the hobby than I spent. which not a lot of people can say. That wasn’t my goal. Just seeing my first picture, even the last one, I still get a thrill seeing the pictures in print.”