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The development of photography and the railroad

Video transcript

(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)