Seth Cassel
February 2008


The Growth of Photography and the Railroad as seen through the Lens of William H. Rau



"Railroad companies now use photography very extensively in advertising their routes. The object is to make public the beautiful scenery along the line of their roads, and by that means to tempt patronage from the traveling public." - William H. Rau, 1871


William Herman Rau (1855-1920), the son of coal merchant John Frederick Rau, grew up in Philadelphia and became one of the city's most well-known photographers of the time. He worked with his brother, George Rau, and eventual father-in-law, William Bell, to learn the art and science behind photography. William Rau's first photographic expedition was in 1874 on a voyage to a location in the South Seas that was hoped to offer a clear view of the planet Venus as it passed close to the Earth. Later in his life, he participated in an exploration of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, worked on Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876, recorded the Johnstown flood of 1889, and photographed the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. "His work [also] includes landscapes,…ships, urban panoramas, buildings, and women" (Interior of First National Bank 1). However, William Rau is best known for his work documenting the development of the railroads within the American landscape. His art serves as a prime example of the emergence of American commercial photography and reflects America's romanticism of the railroad during the Second Industrial Revolution.

The railroads had been a part of America since the early 1800s when the General Survey Act led to the construction of such lines as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. However, only after the Civil War did the railroads begin to play a dominant role in the United States. Railroad expansion occurred as part of the economic boom that the North experienced after the war, while the South remained economically depressed. This post-war time was a period of invention and ingenuity in the North. For example, "George Westinghouse invented air brakes for trains,… the Bessemer process for making steel was introduced… [and] the stock ticker was invented" (Maier 553). Like these technological improvements, the railroad, too, became a product of the progress of the times. "In 1865, the United States had 35,000 miles of railroad track; by 1900, it had nearly 200,000" (Maier 568). This rapid growth of the railroad system in America "encouraged the development of a national culture" (Inventing America 571). The exponential growth of the railroad also became a national symbol for the power and progress of America, fueling the Second American Industrial Revolution.

The development of the first photographic imaging techniques in Europe also occurred during the 1800s. In 1826, Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent image using a camera. Upon his death, Louis Daguerre built upon the ideas of Niépce until, on January 7, 1839, he had perfected a process using silver on a copper plate, calling it the Daguerreotype. When the Daguerreotype was introduced into America in 1839, the new technology quickly became accepted. At first the process was only popular in the upper class as it was prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, the American mind was fascinated by the ability of its great depth of field. Americans were also enamored by photography's capability to be a "mirror of reality" (Rosenblum 23). Some enthusiasts even went so far as to associate photography with "the Emersonian concept of the 'divine hand of nature' with the practicality of scientific positivism" (Rosenblum 23). Because of America's love of scientific realism, photography became extremely popular in the United States during the late 1800s as Americans learned about the process and the technology became more affordable. Photographic studios sprang up in many east coast cities such as in Philadelphia where "in 1885 there were 104 photographic studios, and in 1898 there were 144… Clusters of studios were found along Arch and Vine Streets between Sixth and Ninth; on South Street in the lower numbers; and along Chestnut and Market Streets" (Thousand Words 1). Americans also saw the new technology as being able to replace or at least offer a cheaper alternative to painted portraits. In addition, in one of the largest nations in the world, photography provided the chance for people to see the most remote and beautiful parts of their country.

The proliferation of the American railroads and the popularization of photography in the United States occurred simultaneously and both contributed to the economic growth in America at the time. After the Civil War, "the railroads opened up distant markets for many businesses and farmers… these enlarged markets created competition as well as opportunities" (Maier 567). Thus, in order to gain an advantage on the competition, companies turned to marketing, which "became more sophisticated with firms realizing that they would have to produce what the consumer wanted and also mak[e] efforts to influence tastes" (Competition and Growth of Advertising 157). This marketing boom can be seen in the growth of advertising expenditures from 1880 to 1920, when total advertising volume in the United States grew from about $200 million to nearly $3 billion (American Advertising 2). In this marketing revolution, companies used printed media to promote their goods and services. For example, railroad companies sought to market their services and used photography as "the means of introducing Americans to the beauty and vastness of their country, and to the advantages of travel by train" (Van Horne 1). The railroads attracted many of America's best early photographers in mutually beneficial arrangements, giving them "lucrative commissions, and eliciting some of their most technically sophisticated, aesthetically moving, and lasting work" (Van Horne 1). Railroad companies flourished as scenic images of trains in remote locations were circulated among the public, while at the same time, photographers were able to advance their art by documenting the American landscape in ways never before possible.

One such photographer who was drawn to the railroads was William Herman Rau. "Rau was hired to document [The Pennsylvania Railroad's] routes by Colonel Francis Nelson Barksdale, the head of the advertising department. Advertising photography was then in its infancy, but Barksdale believed it offered a means of increasing passenger traffic by showing sedentary Americans the marvelous sights that awaited them if they embarked on 'the greatest highway to the West'" (Van Horne 1). After working for the Pennsylvania Railroad during the last years of the 19th century, the Lehigh Valley Railroad employed Rau as their advertising photographer.

Many of Rau's railroad photographs were taken to emphasize the harmony that existed between the growing railroad and the American landscape. In a well-known photograph of Rau's, "Picturesque Susquehanna Near Laceyville," which was taken during Rau's time with the Pennsylvania Railroad, it appears as though the only subject is a farm, perhaps of tobacco. However, closer inspection reveals a thin slice of a train track in the bottom left corner. The natural beauty of the farm appears to meld with the splendor of the American Railroad. In a later photograph of Rau's entitled "Cathedral Rocks, Susquehanna River near Meshoppen" taken in 1899 for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, two railroad tracks disappear into the distance surrounded by the sharp jagged edges of a mountain and a wide, winding river. There is a sense that the rails coexist with the natural world as if they are simply another element of nature. "Picturesque Susquehanna Near Laceyville" and "Cathedral Rocks, Susquehanna River near Meshoppen" are both reflective of the types of photographs that characterized Rau's work. His photographs "suggest no contestation between man and nature. The forces of industrialization and the power of the elements seem to be getting along just fine" (Grundberg 1). This positive presentation of the railroad reflects a prevalent sentiment in the society and politics of America in what is known as the "romance of the rails" (Van Horne 1).

Rau's romanticizing of the railroads is also evident in his photographs when only the railroad is his subject. In such images as "New Main Line at Duncannon," Rau frames the photograph to have a beautiful symmetry. Rau took the photograph standing on the middle of a railroad track while a train in the distance majestically moved toward him. A thin wisp of smoke trails the train as it passes on the tracks through a large, untroubled lake. In "Broad Street Station from 17th Street Tower," a large locomotive discharges two great jets of white steam. It sits upon pristine tracks in front of the massive, newly constructed Philadelphia City Hall. These photographs are two of "the few cases where the subject of his pictures is not the scenery but the railroad itself, [where] his tolerance of technology turns to outright admiration" (Grundberg 1). This admiration encouraged the public to patronize the railroads and travel the country in this growing form of transportation.

William Herman Rau was one of America's prominent early photographers. He documented the industrial growth of the North after the Civil War as a commercial photographer of the booming railroad industry. Rau reflected the societal and political sentiment of the time that railroads were a wondrous technological achievement. Through his photography, Rau depicted the coexistence of the railroad with nature, while also portraying the railroads as a glorious achievement in America.




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