- Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad by Glenn Willumson
By Glenn Willumson. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013. vii + 242pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $60.00 cloth.
In Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad, University of Florida art history professor Glenn Willumson weaves together the narratives of several sets of photographs taken during the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. First and foremost, this book is about the photographs and the stories they tell, and sometimes do not tell. Truths, half-truths, and even fabrications are all implicated through this “objective” [End Page 218] visual form of communication. Through an analysis of these photographs, Willumson gives us a fascinating lesson on the history of settlement, railroads, photography, post-Civil War national unity, and a little political economy along the way. It is a critical history of how archives interact with prints, engravings, and the like “to ameliorate the tragedy of the civil war, serve corporate interests, and support a variety of attitudes about the West” (10).
The narrative begins with a discussion on the communicative properties of the photographic image, the theoretical base on which Willumson will tell the narrative of these images. It is well summed up as follows: “the photograph as evidence of a historic event is ambiguous and, therefore, unreliable, marked as much by what is not said as by what is said” (2). Willumson is specifically referring to an iconic image of the meeting of the two railroads, the Central Pacific Railroad (cpr, coming from the west) and the Union Pacific Railroad (upr, from the east). It was a staged photographic event. While the moment depicted is celebratory, what is not shown is how the event was delayed due to a labor strike, as well as how the image removes race relations from the discussion. This stark example sets up Willumson’s critical analysis of these photo archives, their distribution over the years during and after the construction, and the various meanings they take on, often depending on the context in which they are published.
Chapter 1, “Preparing the Ground,” is both a literal discussion of the politics of choosing the route the railroad will take to winning over Congress for needed financial support. Willumson also looks at several examples of how photographs may say one thing and the words used around them seem to say something else. Several examples are from the Civil War. The railroad companies and the officers (on both sides) had their own messages they wished to be accepted as the “true” summary of events. With one’s version accepted, one can then request what is needed to carry out one’s objectives, whether it is winning a war or building a railroad, and photographs can help one’s cause. The images commissioned early on by the railroad companies highlighted the public-service aspect of the construction, hiding the wealth it created for a few “cunning” men. It also became possible in part by the tragedy of the Civil War, through which Congress realized what a precarious hold they had on lands in the West and how important it was to have a stronger permanent presence. The railroad also helped to heal the nation by taking the focus away from a north-south division to a more encompassing east-west nation-building project.
In chapter 2 Willumson analyzes the images and discusses the backgrounds and photographic talents of the two principle photographers, Alfred Hart and Andrew Russell. Hart, who photographed for the cpr, focused his lenses on technology conquering the wild landscapes (and wild people), while Russell’s images for the upr focused more on the laborers. Willumson suggests this might be a reflection of each one’s relationship to the respective railroad companies. During construction, Russell’s photographs of railroad “towns” gave them an appearance of a much more substantial presence then they actually had. Not coincidentally, the upr was looking for investors and emigrants for the lands they owned. Both photographers, Willumson notes, do have some agency concerning the aesthetics of their images, but in the end they were both serving their respective masters.
Chapter 3 looks at...