Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Understanding the Pennsylvania Railroad: Part 1

A Dialogue with the Historic Photographs of William H. Rau

Plate 199. Stone Bridge at Johnstown by William H Rau. Collection of American Premier Underwriters

Plate 199. Stone Bridge at Johnstown by William H Rau. Collection of American Premier Underwriters

In 2003, about four years before I began the Main Line Project, I saw an exhibition of works by photographer William H Rau who was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1890’s to photograph the landscape and destinations along the main line. When I began the project in 2007, my intention was not to create a re-photographic survey but a modern portfolio of images exploring the railroad and its impact on the surrounding landscape. Rau’s work provided the first insight that a project like this could exist without the implicit use of just the trains themselves but by exploring the landscape, technology and the phenomena of the railroad corridor, which creates a uniquely built environment bridging city, country and towns alike. Rau’s commission left an impact on me that has continually evolved with the project to this day.

The stone bridge in Rau's photograph above survives today, though altered with reinforced concrete on its south side. This is one of the few images in the Main Line Project that present the opportunity to visualize the railroad 120 years ago versus today in the same (or similar) location.

The stone bridge in Rau's photograph above survives today, though altered with reinforced concrete on its south side. This is one of the few images in the Main Line Project that present the opportunity to visualize the railroad 120 years ago versus today in the same (or similar) location.

In the coming weeks I am very excited to share more about the Rau commission and how it has impacted my project From the Main Line. These posts will culminate into a lecture on March 7th at the Library Company of Philadelphia, who has on deposit, over 450 original images from the Pennsylvania Railroad Commission. In addition to this lecture, you will be seeing more of Mr. Rau’s work on my blog thanks to the help of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the cooperation of American Premier Underwriters who owns the historic collection. Part of a larger effort to incorporate more historical imagery in my research, Rau’s photos will compliment works from the Lancaster Historical Society’s Collection and the Columbia Historic Preservation Society Collection to detail past operations, facilities and the landscape along the Main Line.

If you are in the Philadelphia area I encourage you to RSVP for the lecture March 7th at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The presentation will discuss how the dialogue between a historic and contemporary photo project evolves and will include a few original prints from Rau and myself in addition to the excellent exhibition, Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads. The installation includes an amazing collection of artifacts, photographs and architectural drawings of Furness commissions for the Reading, Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio Railroads.