Unlike the ubiquitous cellphone snappers of today, individuals who wished to photograph the development of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s — and actually had the equipment to do to — were extremely rare.
Kendra Dillard, director of exhibits for the California State Railroad Museum, says there were only two who seriously documented the union of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads.
Starting Saturday, the photography of those two, Alfred A. Hart and Andrew J. Russell, will be on display at the museum in a new exhibit, “Double Exposure: Photography and the Transcontinental Railroad.”
“It was very arduous to be a photographer back then,” Dillard said. “You had to take your whole darkroom and you had to carry it, and it was very labor-intensive and quite difficult.”
Hart was hired by Central Pacific to photograph the railroad from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah. He would take the train as far as he could go and then stay a few days to photograph the construction.
Russell was Hart’s counterpart for the Union Pacific and shot photos from Omaha, Neb., to Promontory. Russell would camp in the wilderness, following and photographing the railroad, often with infrequent contact with civilization.
Their photos captured “the construction of the railroad as well as the alien landscapes and geological formations of the West, despite the fragile nature of photographic processing and the challenging terrain,” according to museum organizers.
Both photographers’ original works can be seen through a vintage stereoscope viewer, a device similar to the View-Master toy that many people remember from their childhoods. It displays images of the same scene for both the left and right eye, with the viewer’s brain merging them into a single, three-dimensional image.
“The level of detail that they can show in the early photographs is beyond anything we can do today with a digital camera,” Dillard said.
She added that the museum has always displayed railroad photographs, but the use of originals is new.
“It has had its certain audience all the way along, and there are people who are just fascinated by trains and they love taking photographs,” she said.
People in the 1860s were also fascinated by photographs like these.
Dillard said the stereoscope was the television and radio of its time, providing families with 3-D entertainment via their accompanying sets of stereographic cards.
“That was a really popular pastime in the Victorian era,” Dillard said.
In addition to the original stereographs, the exhibit focuses on a timeline of photography evolution — from daguerrotype and callotype to Kodak Brownie cameras and cellphone photography — viewed through images of train culture.
As the railroad developed and advanced, so did photography, Dillard said.
“Photography was growing up at the same time the railroad was, and the technologies were developing on parallel tracks,” Dillard explained. “And the railroad companies used the photographs to influence what the people saw and what they thought about the western U.S.”
Dillard said photography was not only used to document the building process, but also to persuade people to invest or move to the West.
However, other parties could use photography’s power at the time to persuade people to stay away from the West, specifically when transferring photographs from stereographs to woodblock for newsprint.
“The artist who took the woodblock could actually change some of the scenery,” Dillard said. “They would either promote that you could move the West or they could paint the railroad in a negative light.”
In addition to exposing some secrets of railroad photography, the exhibit offers museumgoers the chance to take pictures in a special photo booth and children the opportunity to play detective when answering questions about the exhibit.
The exhibit will be displayed through Oct. 5, 2014, in the Mezzanine Gallery of the Railroad Museum.