Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden

Requiem for Steam exhibition installationInstallation at the California State Railroad Museum of the Center’s traveling exhibition Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden.

In conjunction with renowned photographer David Plowden, the Center produced Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden, to commemorate his book of the same name (W.W. Norton, 2010). Plowden traces his fascination with railway steam power back to his earliest memories. As a five-year-old boy he was mesmerized by the view from his family’s apartment in Manhattan of steamboats plying the East River, and he traveled frequently behind steam locomotives on railroads throughout New England, and later, across most of the U.S. and Canada. Plowden first pointed a camera, his mother’s box Brownie, down a railroad track in 1943 when he was eleven years old. Although he did not know it at the time, he had just discovered his life’s work, his passion.

For the next sixteen years Plowden photographed steam locomotives at every opportunity. He earned a degree in economics from Yale University with the hopes of working in railroad management, spending a year as an assistant to the trainmaster on the Great Northern Railway in Minnesota. At work, he learned railroading and rode trains, then used his days off to photograph some of the GN’s last steam operations.

It was through his pursuit of photographing locomotives that Plowden hit upon the notion of becoming a photographer. He worked as an apprentice to O. Winston Link and studied with Minor White and Nathan Lyons before striking off on his own. In 1959-60, he pursued the end of steam on the Canadian Pacific Railway, having been granted open access to the entire system. His devotion took him to the most far-flung reaches of the CPR’s Atlantic Region where he quite literally bore witness to some of the last breaths of steam on North American mainlines.

After the advent of diesel locomotives’ dominance, Plowden trained his cameras on myriad facets of American industry and infrastructure. Through all his career, the railroad has remained a common thread. The photographs in Requiem for Steam preserve the living beauty of his beloved locomotives while continuing to show the railroad’s presence in the ever-changing American landscape. See in them the power of the steam locomotive, the pride of railroad men, and the lasting imprint of steel rails across the continent.


Photographer David Plowden at California State Railroad Museum. Photo by Scott Lothes
Photographer David Plowden at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento with Southern Pacific locomotive no. 2467. Plowden visited the museum in November 2010 for lectures and book signings during his exhibition. Photograph by Scott Lothes.
Central Vermont Railway extra 464 north meets extra 472 south, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1954
The cover of Requiem shows Central Vermont trains meeting in 1954. Photo copyright David Plowden.

About the Exhibition

Normal Version

  • 30 black-and-white prints
  • 22×26 inches, matted and framed
  • 1 introductory panel and 30 exhibition labels
  • 150 linear feet, total

Extended Version

  • 67 black-and-white prints
  • 22×26 inches, matted and framed
  • 1 introductory panel and 67 exhibition labels
  • 335 linear feet, total


To book a showing or get more information, get in touch with the Center at 608-251-5785 or send an email to info [at] railphoto-art [dot] org.

Previous Venues:

  • National Railroad Museum, Green Bay, Wisconsin, February 3, 2018 to January 6, 2019
  • Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum, Temple, Texas, September 1 through December 9, 2017
  • UA Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, April 4 through June 26, 2017
  • As part of All Aboard! Railroads and the Historic Landscapes They Travel, Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, New Jersey, November 16, 2014, through January 4, 2015
  • Museum of the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur, Texas, October 26 through December 29, 2013
  • O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, Virginia, February 10 through May 6, 2012
  • Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) School of Engineering, September 23 through December 11, 2011
  • Oliver B. Jensen Gallery, Valley Railroad, Essex, Connecticut, June 25 through September 5, 2011
  • California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, Fall 2010 through Spring 2011
  • Naples Depot Museum, Naples, Florida, January 14 to April 16, 2021