SALT LAKE CITY — As millions of Americans alternate between their online and offline personas, they’re likely unaware of the origins of these decidedly contemporary terminology. "Online” and “offline” began as railroad terms, used to describe one’s status in relation to a railway line. So, while today’s youths use their “online” personas to transport themselves to a seemingly distant place — the internet — youths in 1869 were just being afforded the same opportunity.
Beginning in 1863, the construction of the transcontinental railroad spanned a remarkable 1,912 miles of railway line before its completion in 1869. All told, the railroad stands as an incredible achievement of humankind, forever changing the world in which we live. On May 10, 1869, Utah’s Promontory Point hosted the famous “Meeting of the Rails,” marking a monumental turning point in American history and transforming the ways in which Americans lived and interacted with one another.
Now, in partnership with the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and the Joslyn Art Museum, the traveling exhibition "The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West" follows the railroad’s path from Nebraska to California, stopping in Salt Lake's Utah Museum of Fine Arts through May 26. In doing so, the exhibition crafts an unprecedented display of early photographs by innovators in the newly emerging artistic medium.
Undeniably, photography’s appearance in the 19th century's artistic landscape was revolutionary and shocking. For the artists working in painting and sculpture, the relatively quick process by which photographers were able to capture their subjects was a vulgar shortcut, which undermined the arduous artistic labor of their brushstrokes and carving. The process seemed decidedly scientific and uninspired, albeit magical in its precision.
The idea that photography was nothing more than a record of precise reality began to emerge as a way of discrediting its artistic potential. Quickly, however, others advocated the new medium, arguing convincingly that apart from a mindless harbinger of objective “reality,” photography was an apt vehicle for new and creative insights. It’s within this newfound exuberance for photography that Alfred A. Hart, Andrew J. Russell and Charles Savage found their way — all photographers featured in the UMFA's exhibition.
Hart’s stereographs are visual testaments to the labor-intensive process of their making, combining his keen awareness of the chemical properties necessary to achieve the perfect rendering, as well as the perfect atmospheric conditions for the shot.
“It’s important to remember that photography was not a solitary endeavor in the 19th century, like painting was,” said Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art.
Indeed, while mediums that predate photography took decidedly more time, by our contemporary standards the act of taking a single image was a community effort requiring an admirable degree of patience for all parties involved.
In fact, the most famous image of them all, Russell’s capturing of the East and West shaking hands at the “Meeting of the Rails,” was a backup option after the original printing plate broke.
“Interestingly, this image was never meant to be the image, but became so simply because it was the only one to survive,” said Patricia LaBounty, curator for the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, explaining the time-consuming and delicate processes of capturing these images.
Of the three photographers featured in the exhibition, viewers will find in Hart’s work an assortment of incredible images of the railroad itself and encounter in Russell’s work a more expansive view of the railroad's surrounding landscape, including a number of natural and geographic wonders that captivated Russell’s attention. Works by Utah photographer Charles Savage were specifically chosen for the exhibition from the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections.
Importantly, the exhibition boasts the display of the famous golden spike, reunited with its sister silver spikes — the Nevada and Arizona spikes — for the first time in Utah, according to the exhibition press release.
These images speak to the era’s palpable air of progress. Indeed, in our world of technological accommodations, it’s difficult to imagine just how impactful the transcontinental railroad was for millions of Americans during this time. The railroad decreased the national travel distance from seven months to seven days and allowed for mail services that revolutionized and broadened lines of communication — feats that are immortalized in this traveling photography exhibition, UMFA executive director Gretchen Dietrich reminded us.
“As the fine arts museum for the state of Utah, where the transcontinental railroad was completed," she said, "we are thrilled to bring the story of this landmark American movement and these historic photographs to our audiences.”
If you go …
What: “The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West”
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive
When: Through May 26, Thursday-Tuesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Monday