.History as Art: Andrew J. Russell’s Railroad Photographs

Overlooked master gets overdue retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California.

Andrew J. Russell’s photograph of the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, with jubilant workers perched atop the opposing locomotives, is iconic, yet few know who made “East and West Shaking Hands…” Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell, at the Oakland Museum through September 1, corrects the oversight. Curator Drew Johnson cited Russell’s relative underestimation as an impetus for the show, along with two timely anniversaries: “The sesquicentennial of the transcontinental railroad’s completion on May 10, 1869, and the 50th anniversary of the Oakland Museum of California and the Museum’s acquisition of the Russell collection.”

Russell (1829-1902), who enlisted in the Union Army after having painted dioramas used to promote enlistment, photographed the Civil War for the war Department. Employing the same laborious wet-collodion glass-plate technique three years after the war, for Union Pacific, using a black-tented horse-drawn wagon, he captured that railroad’s 1911-mile progress from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento and later Alameda and Oakland. He recorded the glory and immensity of the Wyoming and Utah Territory, and the rough living conditions of the workers’ camps and ramshackle early settlements like Corinne, “the [non-Mormon] gentile capital of Utah.” Venturing beyond his corporate brief, he also captured the lives of native Americans displaced by forcible eminent domain; a map of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Ute nations shows their ancient homelands bisected by the iron road. That sad story receives overdue consideration in the show, as does the condescension of “the civilized world,” including Russell, if you read his article for his hometown newspaper.

Notwithstanding our contemporary scruples, however, the photographs remain stunning and sublime, with astonishing detail that becomes immersive in several large mural-size blowups made from digital scans of the museum’s glass negatives. History buffs will take to the vintage albumen prints, revealing abraded, time-worn glass plate edges. For the scientifically inclined, there are stereographs and stereocards, the nineteenth-century’s View-Masters, including one of Russell’s partner and his wife posing before an improvised backdrop; a video about the wet-collodion process, featuring a museum preparator versed in that technology; and a large view camera and a smaller stereo camera like those that Russell would have used, the wood-and-brass originals having been lost.

The First Transcontinental Railroad, completed with the Central Pacific’s Leland Stanford hammering the golden spike (now displayed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford) into the last rail, has been compared to our Apollo Project moonshot in technological complexity and daring innovation. Russell’s photographs depicting this are thus arguably the equivalent of the Rolleiflex photos shot by moonwalking astronauts. The museum has organized the images thematically, grouped under broad chronological and geographic headings: The Land, Cutting The Land, Building It, Bridging the Land, Heavy Industry, Boomtowns, and The Railroad Pushes West. Don’t miss Russell’s other photographs from May 10, showing officers of the Union Pacific standing athwart the rails; Chinese laborers from the Central Pacific laying the final connecting rail; and a shot taken from the top of one of the locomotives, looking past the funnel-shaped smokestack across the crowds awaiting the event to its stovepipe-stacked Central Pacific counterpart.

The mural-sized “Temporary and Permanent Bridge, Green River, Citadel Rock in Distance” presents a panorama of men posing motionless in the snow for the long exposure: two workers stand on a seesaw-powered handcar, while others rest seated atop their train’s cowcatcher as the locomotive, angled in the exact compositional position of the black juggernaut in Turner’s “Rain, Steam and Speed,” refills its boilers. “Steam Shovel at Hanging Rock, Echo Canyon” depicts workers jauntily perched atop powerful yet primitive machinery. “Conglomerate Peaks of Echo, General View” shows triangular pinnacles that appear to be made from papier-mâché, dwarfing a small white triangular woman, and a semi-visible man in conglomerate-toned gray, posing for the distant photographer. A similar man-vs.-nature contrast charges the beautiful, elegiac “Ripple Lake, White Pine Canon (Canyon), Parley’s Park.” “Testing Combination Bridge, Devil’s Gate, Weber Canyon” shows three locomotives at rest atop a trestle bridge, with men at both ends of the structure, perhaps ready to jump off if necessary; it’s a demonstration of the brave new world of steel technology.

Finally, we should mention the labels, which feature historical/geographical headings above the photo titles. Drew Johnson, again: “When it was built, the railroad was described as travelling through “uninhabited lands,” but in fact it cut through the homelands of many Native Peoples. … OMCA has a long-standing Native Advisory council which … along with some other Native advisors consulted for the project, suggested we begin each label with the names of the Native homelands depicted before presenting Russell’s own titles.”

EDITOR’s NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the show’s curator, Drew Johnson.


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