When art collides with history, the results can be locomotive.
The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art is presenting its annual William H. Rau collection of 19th-century era Pennsylvania Railroad photographs. The exhibit, titled "William H. Rau: Panorama Portraits of Travel," features 30 albumen and sepia-toned photographs on permanent loan from the Altoona Area Public Library Collection which depict the countryside and industrial landscape along the Pennsylvania Railroad from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. It remains on view through May 7.
"It's actually like taking a tour in 1891 from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and seeing the beauty of the countryside," Stan Snyder, SAMA-Altoona administrative assistant and exhibit curator, said. "The public will be inspired by the panoramic photographs as though they were traveling in time with Rau. As landscape portraits, each photo is identifiable by its location's environmental personality as captured by the photographer's perspective.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
SAMA-Altoona Administrative Assistant Stan Snyder looks over the exhibit of William H. Rau photographs which he guest curated.
"The viewer will become a passenger as Rau captures the aesthetic beauty of each panoramic portrait along the rail lines from the Broad Street Station in Philly to the Union Station in Pittsburgh."
Rau (1855-1920) was one of Pennsylvania's most important and technically accomplished photographers from the 1880s through World War I, Snyder said. He was perhaps best known as the official photographer for the Pennsylvania Railroad at the turn of the century and was the first photographer commissioned by the railroad (in 1891) to document the scenic views along the mainline in order to promote the railroad and increase passenger traffic. His photographs not only glorified rail travel and the progress made by the Industrial Revolution, but also helped legitimize photography as a major art form.
"His work played a vital role in shaping the perception of the American landscape in the late 19th century," Snyder said.
To undertake an elaborate survey of its system, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company equipped Rau with a special rail car, Snyder said. In his modern darkroom he produced, according to Philadelphia's now-defunct Public Ledger, "some of the finest railroad views of the age." The interior of the car was designed as a living area for Rau and his assistant, but the central part of the car was the heart of the operation. The interior of the darkroom was jet black with ruby and orange windows, and equipped with negative racks, full development facilities and a 300-gallon water tank. Ventilation shafts ran diagonally through the walls from floor to floor allowing free passage of air without infiltration of light. Padded trunks were built for the storage of his fragile photographic negatives.
The 30 photographs are only a small part of the largest intact collection of Rau's known work (there are 655 images from the archives of the Altoona Area Public Library that have been restored by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts of Philadelphia),
"There are a great many people in this community who went through a lot of trouble to make sure these photographs would stay in the area and be made available to the public. They're here for the community to enjoy and appreciate," Debbie Weakland, the library's executive director said. "The folks at SAMA do a really good job in telling a story with these photos. And I think it's a really great story in central Pennsylvania - the impact the railroad has had in the past and will have in the future."
Barbara Hollander, the museum's site coordinator, called the photos "exquisite."
"Artistically, each photo stands alone," Barbara Hollander, the museum's site coordinator, said. "Each photograph is truly a work of art. The way Stan curated the exhibit - the photographs are telling a story here, going from east to west Pennsylvania. I thought that was just a wonderful, innovative take on this whole exhibit.
"It's amazing how the railroad buffs come out of the woodwork when this exhibit goes up, and not just locally," she said. "We get people from out of the state - there are a lot of railroad followers out there."
But there's more to the exhibit than railroad history appreciation, she said.
"I also hope viewers come away with a sense of the serenity and peacefulness that is Pennsylvania," she said. "Pennsylvania is one of the most beautiful states in the USA. A hundred years later, it's still the same - that hasn't changed."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460