Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Exhibition & Press: William H. Rau: Urban, Rural, Rail

It goes without saying that the work of William H. Rau has had a tremendous influence on my ongoing project, From the Main Line, so it gives me great pleasure to announce that I will have several pieces included in an exhibition at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art titled William H. Rau: Urban, Rural, Rail in the heart of Pennsylvania Railroad territory, Altoona, Pennsylvania. The exhibition runs through September 9th and will include a symposium on August 16th in which I will discuss the role of Rau's imagery and how it has both informed and influenced my own. The exhibition has already received some terrific feedback, including this recent feature in the Altoona Mirror. I look forward to sharing more about this incredible show while continuing to explore the dialog with Rau's imagery for both inspiration and historical reference in documenting the former Standard Railroad of the World

Quadruple Track – Tanks, Monmouth Junction, New Jersey c. 1891. William H. Rau. The Altoona Public Library Collection

Quadruple Track – Tanks, Monmouth Junction, New Jersey c. 1891. William H. Rau. The Altoona Public Library Collection

Rau’s work captured the Allegheny landscape of the 1890s

SAMA-Altoona exhibits more vintage photographs
By Altoona Mirror Staff Writer  - Cherie Hicks

Another batch of cutting-edge photographs that captured the Allegheny landscape in the 1890s is now on display at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

“William H. Rau: Urban, Rural, Rail” features 27 albumem and sepia-toned photographs taken by the commercial photographer who was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The show, curated by Penn State Altoona history lecturer Julie Fether, runs through Sept. 9.

The exhibition takes viewers on a “photographic trip with Rau,” in which “hidden worlds become exposed ‘openings,'” a late 19th-century term used to describe landscape and landscape photography, Fether said.

“It shows not just the landscape that the railroad carved through, but the mark that the railroad made on the landscape and in the communities it created,” she said.

Main Line, looking west, Altoona, Pennsylvania. One of four images from the Main Line project accompanying the collection of Rau images in the exhibition at SAMA- Altoona

Main Line, looking west, Altoona, Pennsylvania. One of four images from the Main Line project accompanying the collection of Rau images in the exhibition at SAMA- Altoona

The exhibition follows the different PRR divisions that Rau tracked, from the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City to Pittsburgh. Rau (rhymes with how) was a successful commercial photographer in Philadelphia when the PRR commissioned him to travel its main line and take pictures of the beautiful scenery in an effort to lure tourists onboard trains.

“Today, these photographs are a testament to the emergence of photography used to promote travel and tourism,” Fether said. “Attracting the young and old, rich and poor, to the glamor of railroad travel, the rails provided an opportunity to participate in the power of acute observation from the window of a passenger car and experience new communities along the way.”

Rau, who died in 1920, produced a total of 463 photographs in his project, 273 of which are considered the Altoona collection and are owned by the Altoona Area Public Library and housed by SAMA. The other photos from the railroad project are owned by The Library Company of Philadelphia.

The current show is a follow-up to another exhibition of Rau photographs that Fether curated at SAMA-Altoona in 2015. With the museum only able to display about three dozen at a time, Fether said she had a theme in mind as she sifted through binders of 8-by-10-inch prints in the Altoona collection of Rau’s work.

Philadelphia, 50th Street Yard (West), c. 1891. William H. Rau. The Altoona Public Library Collection

Philadelphia, 50th Street Yard (West), c. 1891. William H. Rau. The Altoona Public Library Collection

As she was culling, she searched online for other Rau-related work and stumbled on Michael Froio, a Drexel University professor of photography whose contemporary work has been influenced by Rau.

“Even as the railroad has declined, there’s a timelessness to these pictures,” Fether said. “What do they look like today? That is why I reached out to Michael.”

The exhibition includes four black-and-white, contemporary pieces from Froio’s own project called From the Main Line that complement and pay homage to Rau’s photographs, Fether said. One such work is called “Main Line Looking West, Altoona, Pennsylvania,” and Froio said he clearly remembers the first time he saw Rau’s work.

“While I was instantly captivated by the subject matter in Rau’s photographs, it was more the approach of his work that left a lasting mark, illustrating not only the railroad but the engineering, landscape and architecture along the line,” he said. “The imagery by Rau left us with a rich visual legacy to derive tremendous amounts of information about the railway, the landscape and the energy of the industrial age.”

In Images like "Woodvale Yard, Franklin Boro, Pennsylvania", Rau's work both informs and inspires through understanding the history of place while responding to aesthetically choices like the use of light, composition and technical process. 

In Images like "Woodvale Yard, Franklin Boro, Pennsylvania", Rau's work both informs and inspires through understanding the history of place while responding to aesthetically choices like the use of light, composition and technical process. 

It shows “the prominent role the Pennsylvania Railroad played in developing the United States and the continual improvements they made to better themselves in the process,” Froio said.

Fether explained that part of Rau’s allure was how technically advanced he was for his time, experimenting with new photographic methods and constantly perfecting the process. Most of his pictures were printed on albumen photographic paper, or a paper coated with egg white and chemicals. PRR provided him with his own rail car, in which he could sleep and produce negatives and prints, and Rau did not disappoint.

“It is an absolute honor to be a part of this show, having a chance to hang work next to Rau’s,” Froio said.

Froio and Fether will be lead speakers at a symposium on Rau’s work and legacy at SAMA-Altoona on Aug. 16 at 11 a.m. Froio will discuss Rau’s influence on his own work. Fether said she will explain how the exhibition evolved. She also will explain some writings that are part of the show from John Stilgoe, a professor of the history of landscape development at Harvard University, and others on the “art and practice of ‘seeing’ landscape.”

The public is invited to the program, which costs $15 ($14 for SAMA members) and includes lunch. Reservations are required by calling the museum at (814) 946-4464 or emailing altoona@sama-art.org.