The Development of Photography and the Railroad


(train whistle blows) Voiceover: On a barren
stretch of prairie 600 miles west of St. Louis, a crew
laying rails for the first transcontinental railroads
stopped long enough for Alexander Gardner to make this photograph. Once this railroad was
completed, travelers no longer had to spend months crossing
rivers and mountains and prairies on horseback and then wagons. They could journey from the
east coast to California in just a few days. The development of the railroad
paralleled the invention of photography, together
and independently. These two innovations
introduced people to an entirely new way of seeing the world. Assistant Curator of
Photographs, Anne Lyden. Anne: It’s hard for us to
imagine today in this of technological world, but
during the 1860s traveling at speeds of 30-40 miles an
hour, it was really quite revolutionary and it completely altered people’s sense of space and distance. Voiceover: In Europe, the
railroad was a unifying element connecting cities
and towns, places that people lived, worked or
vacationed. This film, from the 1890s shows the simplicity
of commuting by train between urban centers and
recreational destinations like La Ciotat in the South of France. In England, where the steam
locomotive was invented, railroads emerged from
an industrial background. They are the main impetus
for the growing network of railroads, was the
efficient transportation of raw and manufactured goods. In America, however, tracks
were laid across an entire continent through vast
areas of wilderness to unify the country. The railroad
reflected the expansion of a growing empire and together
with railroad photography, drew people west, both as
tourists and as permanent settlers. This photograph
of an engine decorated with antlers outside a Wyoming
train station emphasizes the American pioneer spirit. Anne: Many railroad
photographs were made as promotional images celebrating
the adventure of travel. Photographer William Henry
Jackson made this portrait of a well-dressed traveling
party on the Colorado Midland Railway in an
attempt to seduce potential travelers. He framed the
image with a tunnel carved out by explosives and
inadvertently documented the workers’ struggle that made
it possible for the faint passengers to travel in luxury. Photographers such as
Jackson celebrated the engineering accomplishments
of the railroads. Boring through mountains
and building bridges and trestles over creeks and canyons. The laborers employed by
the railroads however, often risked and
sometimes lost their lives to complete these projects. This striking photograph by
Carlton Watkins focuses on an impressive trestle near
Sacramento, California. Presenting the grandeur
of this engineering achievement by including
some of the 12,000 Chinese workers who
helped build the Central Pacific Railroad, it also tells
the story of immigrant labor. Ann: At first the public
was suspicious and a little fearful of trains. The
noisy, smoking, steam producing locomotive was so unfamiliar. Photography was used to
dispel any concerns and answer any curiosity should
regarding the railroad. It was integral in
encouraging people to travel. Though the novelty of
steam engines faded and the public no longer feared or marveled at the railroad, twentieth-century
photographers were still attracted to the subject. They created photographs
that celebrated the abstract qualities of
these beautiful empire machines in sumptuous detail. (steam blowing)

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