If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Photography and railroads

In 1830, the British actress Fanny Kemble described riding in a train as “strange beyond description.” This new mode of transportation started at almost exactly the same time as an equally revolutionary invention: photography. The two would radically change perceptions of time, space, and place in the world. Whether commissioned by railroad companies or made as independent works of art, photographs depict the strong connection between two 19th-century inventions that forever changed perception.

The dawn of a new age: railroads and photography

From its birthplace in England, the railroad quickly spread around the world as a revolutionary form of transportation. Prior to railroad travel, few people were able to travel great distances. Those who did generally measured the journey in days rather than hours.
River Landscape with Carriage Drawn by Six Horses, ca 1674, follower of Jan Siberechts, Flemish. Oil on canvas; 31 7/8 inches high x 37 3/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 78.PA.224)
The traditional modes of transportation–walking, riding, horse carriage, traveling by boat or barge—were strongly connected to the flow of nature. Human or animal strength determined the pace of the journey, as did the physical characteristics of the natural environment, such as wind or tide.
The steam locomotive shattered this pace. Traveling at up to three times the speed of a horse carriage, the early locomotives were able to cover great distances in much less time. The new form of transportation was faster, mechanized, and comparatively detached from nature. While the physical momentum of humans or animals was intuitively understood, steam locomotion was both new and mysterious. To describe steam power, people often made analogies between the new form of transportation and the old: Many early accounts refer to the steam engine as a living animal, an “iron horse.”
By 1839, fourteen years after the appearance of the first public passenger train, another significant technical innovation had appeared: photography. When the invention of photography was announced, it too was hailed as an invention that would revolutionize the world. However, most people were as unaware of the technical processes that allowed photographs to be made as they were of the inner workings of locomotion. Photography offered the public a way to record the physical world with remarkable clarity.

The moving landscape

Line from Villeneuve-Saint-Gorges to Montargis/Viaduct on the Loing (near Montargis), December 1866, Hippolyte-Auguste Collard, French. From the album “Chemin de fer du Bourbonnais. Moret-Nevers-Vichy.” Albumen silver print; 8 27/32 inches high x 13 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XM.407.18)
For people who had only known traveling by foot or horse carriage, initial reactions ranged from genuine curiosity to suspicion and fear. In response, pictures designed to reassure and tempt an audience of potential passengers began to spread.
_Cameron’s Cone from “Tunnel 4,”_1887–89, William Henry Jackson, American. Albumen silver print; 21 1/4 inches high x 16 3/4 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.XM.5.36)
To increase ridership, railroad companies commissioned photographers to document scenic attractions and entice new settlers to the towns and dwellings springing up along the new routes. The new medium was used to showcase steam locomotives, trains, wagons, tracks, bridges, tunnels, and stations.
Photography was particularly instrumental in the tourism industry, making possible visual records of train travel that served as works of art, promotions, and souvenirs. Photographers benefited from sales of prints to passengers who traveled, developing an audience of armchair travelers who poured over the images brought back by family and friends.
Facing pages advertising rail routes in California and photographs by Carleton Watkins, from Bentley’s Handbook of the Pacific Coast, 1884. Letterpress book with 31 mounted albumen silver prints; 9 1/2 inches high x 12 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.XB.97, pages 140–141)
Brothers William and Frederick Langenheim were among the entrepreneurs inspired by the development of the railroads in the United States. In the mid-19th century, they made a series of glass stereographs of train travel. A stereograph consists of two nearly identical photographs mounted onto a support of either glass or cardboard. When viewed together in a stereoscopic device, they produce a seemingly three-dimensional image. In those years the process required a great amount of time and labor, but the Langenheims produced many fine-quality images. Their stereograph of the Niagara Suspension Bridge (shown below) dates from 1855–56. It shows the newly built bridge with a locomotive crossing the Niagara River Gorge; the falls are faintly visible in the background. This small, hand-colored glass plate, an almost jewel-like object, requires transmitted light to illuminate the scene. When viewed in the stereoscope, the small image becomes powerfully immersive.
Niagara Falls, Summer View: Suspension Bridge and Falls in the Distance, ca. 1855–56, William and Frederick Langenheim, American (b. Germany). Glass stereograph; 3 1/4 inches high x 6 3/4 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.10.218)
Engineer John A. Roebling, a pioneer of suspension technology who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge, planned the Niagara bridge. Both tiers of his design are clearly visible in the Langenheim stereograph. The lower level was for foot and vehicular traffic, while the upper level was used by the railroad. Niagara Falls was a popular tourist destination, and the Langenheim Brothers documented its sights with multiple pictures in order to inform and delight growing numbers of travelers and photography enthusiasts who flocked to the area.

The 20th century

In the 19th century, the railroad was a new and exciting innovation, often documented in photographs that celebrated technological achievements and recorded novel or unfamiliar landscapes. The early 20th century, however, ushered in new approaches to the subject. Once people became familiar with train travel, photography was no longer required to inform people about the workings and appearance of the railroad. Many photographers began to record images of the railroad for aesthetic reasons alone. Artists responded to railroad machinery in a variety of ways, producing dramatic abstractions, detailed technical studies, or staged compositions that continued the tradition of showing trains in use.
Wheels, 1939, Charles Sheeler, American. Gelatin silver print; 6 5/8 inches high x 9 5/8 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 88.XM.22.7)
Charles Sheeler’s 1939 photograph Wheels (shown above) exemplifies this shift, with the cylinders, valve gear, and driving wheels of a locomotive as the focus of the image. Sheeler’s composition concentrates on the nuts and bolts that hold the locomotive together, while the steam escaping from the piston at the lower right suggests that this image is a fleeting one. At any moment, this massive machine may begin to roll out of view. Sheeler frames the picture so that the ghost-gray disk wheel is contrasted with the dark cylinder casing. This play of light and dark, together with the steam vapor, makes a forceful portrait of potential energy.

Vision and perception

Photography and the railways enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership. Photography could reproduce a passenger’s perspective from safe inside the railcar, while also offering a more comprehensive account than any one passenger could experience. Photographs filled the gaps of the physical journey. But they also documented the progress of the railroad and its evolving technologies, providing a social history of one of the most important innovations of the 19th century. Photography provided evidence of the impact of iron rails on the physical world, while also revealing the artistic and intellectual influences of the photographer.
Main Line and Low Grade Tracks at Parkesburg, 1891–95, William H. Rau, American. Gelatin silver print; 17 5/16 inches high x 21 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.766.3.1)
As we marvel at high-speed electronic messages and digital images sent through the Internet and digital devices, we should also appreciate the revolutionary nature of the crucial innovations of the 19th century. The amazing inner workings of today’s technologies are largely invisible to us—just as early locomotives were “strange beyond description.”

Think about answers
How did the development of photography and railroads affect perceptions of speed and distance?
Discuss your answers
Use the Questions area below to share your answer. Then read several answers that are different than your own. Upvote the answer you find most convincing, and then comment, in response, with the reason you chose this answer.

Adapted from Railroad Vision: Photography, Travel, and Perception by Anne M. Lyden. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
Learn more about photography and the railroad in the video The development of photography and the railroad.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.