Railroad photography has transcended its origins as a creative hobby or tool of railroad promotion and, over the last three decades, has emerged as a legitimate preservation discipline. Its images are becoming recognized widely as a distinct form of visual art and a powerful research tool.
Beginning with a formal exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art nearly 25 years ago, a succession of popular and museum exhibitions have brought the work of railroad photographers and artists before millions of people–further evidence of its mainstream recognition.
By far the most visible current exhibition, “Railroad Vision” at the prestigious J. Paul Getty Museum (www.getty.edu/museum) in Los Angeles through June 23, presents 90 images from the Americas, Europe, and South Africa. “From the 1850s onward photography and the railroad embarked on a journey together. This complex new relationship shaped a visual culture that dealt with issues of space, time, and distance in a way that never before existed,” Anne M. Lyden, assistant curator in charge of the exhibition, writes in an illustrated brochure.
Another exhibit, “Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad: The Photographs of William H. Rau” through September 20 is at the Library Company of Philadelphia (www.librarycompany.org). The railroad commissioned Rau, Philadelphia’s preeminent photographer, to take hundreds of photographs to promote travel on the railway. A companion volume, edited by John C. Van Horne with Eileen E. Drelick, has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in cooperation with the Library Company. The book includes introductory essays by three scholars including John Stilgoe.
The Center’s exhibit, “Railroads and Photography: 150 Years of Great Images,” has been touring the country since 1999. We are flattered that the Getty has adopted an approach similar to ours. In brochure/catalogs published for exhibits at the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library, St. Louis, 2000, and Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City, 2001-02, the center said, “Railroads and photography grew up together as two of the technologies that profoundly changed American life. We are a nation based on mobility and images, so it should not be surprising that railroads embraced photography–and vice versa.” The center’s exhibit also is at the Middleton, Wisconsin, railroad depot, which has offices for the city’s tourism center and excursion train.
As archival collections held by nonprofit institutions continue to grow in quality and quantity, so too railroad images are continuing to become more accessible and available to the public eye. Some 18 major depositories have an estimated 2,586,000 images. At six of these locations, images are available on the Internet. Nine have at least minimal motion picture holdings. In the future, the Center plans a comprehensive review of these holdings.
Railroad photography as an artistic discipline often has been overlooked, as I pointed in the Preservation Points column in Trains (June 2002). But after 160 years in a pivotal role in the industry’s life and evolution, it should be no surprise that the rest of the world is “discovering” the power of railroad images. We can look forward to more respect for what we have for so long taken for granted.