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How the American Railroad is enhanced by Visual Culture


How the American Railroad is Enhanced by Visual Culture




            In the US, railroad has experienced numerous developments and changes since the time when the steam locomotives were used, to the latest innovation of electric trains. A good example is when the Central Pacific’s transcontinental railway was completed and launched through a famous ceremony held in Utah in 1989. A lot of Americans were happy with the achievement because it made traveling from New York to Francisco easier and faster (Morgan, 1999). The contribution of the railway was not just in travelling, but also in the promotion of the American culture and particularly the visual culture through photography, paintings, and sculptures.

According to Shehaan (2011) the establishment of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in 1997 is an example of how American railroad is enhanced by visual culture. This Center, which is situated in Wisconsin, works closely with photographers, historians, and writers from the US to showcase how the railroad has influenced American culture. Its journal, Railroad Heritage, contains historic and contemporary work in railroad photography and arts. One of the issues of the journal has visual images about women in railroad while another issue has images of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg who had written books that changed how Americans thought about railroads.

American railroad has also influenced visual culture through many exhibitions that have been established to illustrate images of locomotives that were used in the early years. Once such exhibition is “Railroads and Photography: I50 Years of Great Images” (Keller, 1995). This exhibition was opened in 1999 by the Center for Railroad Photography at the California Railroad Museum. Since then, the exhibition has been held in states such as Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, and Georgia. Moreover, the Center also expanded its exhibition program in 2006 to various universities in the US. In such exhibitions, there were paintings and photographs of the designs of locomotives used in the railroad transport

As noted by Berger (2005) the Center has also established an annual conference dubbed “conversations about photography” that mainly awards railroad photographers and gives participants a chance to discuss about contemporary railroad photography and also encourage young photographers to remain focused. This conference is hosted by Lake Forest College where the special collections department is a co-sponsor. Conferences that were held at Milwaukee and College Station, Texas, celebrated the diesel locomotive and also gave insights on the visual impact it had on the landscape of railroading.

In addition to representing past rail work, visual culture has expanded to include current photography exhibitions that represent the railroad as it appears today in locations such as the Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Photographs and images also focus on the stories of the people who constructed the railroads. As these exhibitions continue touring different parts of the US, they are having an impact on people who learn about the history of the railroads through such visual arts.

The influence of the America railroad on visual culture is also evident through the establishment of the Trains magazine in 2008. Through this magazine, the historic railroad photos entered the digital age. This was also seen in the CTC Board Railroads Illustrated that featured the exhibition known as “Still a Word Apart: Visual Components of Contemporary Railroaders” in the issue of September 2005.

Furthermore, the use of railroads to influence visual culture is also experienced through the growth of the internet. For instance, Center for Railroad Photography launched a Newsletter called Railway & Locomotive Historical Society in 2007.  This is an online publication that appears at the Center’s website Again, the publication has photos of the American railroad and its workers and also includes paintings of the workers and the challenges they faced during the railroad construction. Supported by the North American Railway Foundation, the Center’s internet archive has been instrumental in producing more than 50 images done in color and others in black and white (Malamud, 2012). Each of the images has a description showing how it’s connected to the railroad history. The images summarize the growth and changes experienced in railroad since 1850s. One of the railroad workers with his portrait among these images is Lewis Hine who worked as a locomotive engineer.

Another worker was the American photographer Evans who focused on the American railroad. His photography featured railroad development from 1930-970s. Rose was also another artist who photographed trains after riding on them in the US, Mexico, and Guatemala. This artist’s black and white photographs taken during his journeys featured the last days of active steam railroading in the US (Shehaan, 2011). The quality of his photographs was also expressed in his paintings done between 1956 and 1962.

Other publications that have featured visual images influenced by railroad include the Chicago Tribune that had a photo collection representing the growth of railroads and film. Indeed, the visual culture in this case was used to show how the railroad has been transformed from the old days of locomotives to the latest developments where electric trains are used in the US and other parts of the world. An artist known as Muybridge created awareness about the introduction of railroads in the US through pictures. Most people could not understand what steam engine was because it was frequently caricatured as a burning dragon that made noise and produced a lot of smoke. There were other people who were astonished by the introduction of the steam engine because they thought that human beings were not supposed to travel at a speed of 35 miles per hour. To them, this speed was too high. However, Muybridge used photographs to tell others about the railroad and why it needed more appreciation than condemnation (Malamud, 2012). As he rode in trains, Muybridge took photographs of beautiful mountains, animals, rivers, forests, bridges, and other features that were easier to spot when traveling on trains.

Visual culture related to the American railroad was not just about the trains and locomotives, but also about the landscape of where the trains were passing through. Pastoral landscape was one of the beautiful sceneries where artists took photographs as trains passed in such scenes (Berger, 2005). Such photographs are also used in making calendars that are used for reminding Americans about the history of the railroad. In some cases, railroad photographs and paintings are also placed on billboards and especially near rail stations.

The contribution of the American railroad to the visual culture is also seen in museums. Thousands of photographs and paintings are found in various museums in the US where they attract many visitors due to their history. These images also play a major role in history because people are able to remember the historical development of the railroad and its social and economic contribution to the Americans. This is significant because it lets the young generation to appreciate the development that has occurred in the railroad when they compare the modern trains and the steam locomotives. To sum up, the contribution of the American railroad to the visual culture cannot be underestimated because many visual artists were influenced by railroad to do their paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Indeed, such images will remain an important part of American history as they enrich the visual culture.




Berger, M. (2005). Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture. California: University of California Press.

Keller, J. (1995). Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection. New York: Getty Publications.

Malamud, R. (2012). An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Morgan, D. (1999). Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shehaan, T. (2011). Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth Century America. Penn: Penn State Press.

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