Railroading Meets History

Our mission: to preserve and present significant images of railroading.

The Center for Railroad Photography & Art has become America’s foremost organization for interpreting the intersection of railroad art and culture with America’s history and culture. We have achieved that status through successful publications (especially our journal, Railroad Heritage®), exhibitions, conferences, and an online web portal (railroadheritage.org) that features the best of railroad photography and art coupled with descriptive summaries that enhance understanding of railroad history, technology, and artistry. The portal’s “railroad history in a nutshell” gives a broad overview, in 30 pictures or less, with capsule discussions. We intend to continue to be the leader in the Railroad Heritage® community’s visual world through our exhibitions, publications, conferences, and railroadheritage.org and we intend to continue informing the railroad community and the public that railroads changed the world.

“Conversations,” an annual event for the Center, is featured in an ad in Railfan & Railroad.

The Center, founded in 1997, works with photographers, writers, and historians across the country to achieve its goals, although its home is in Madison, Wisconsin. Since we do not maintain a museum space but collaborate with other institutions, we use the majority of our resources for creative programs, not for maintenance and salaries.

Our railroadheritage.org program collaborates with photographers, writers, historians, and other institutions. They help find and describe images for the site, and assist as well in providing material for our journal and exhibitions. Railroadheritage.org went online in September 2007. The types of images on the site range from the familiar and the grand to the unfamiliar and the humble–always of good quality and painstakingly described. The Lake Forest (Illinois) College library’s special collections department continues as a strong partner.

The Center produced this poster for its diesel conference in 2006.

Since the beginning, the Center’s goal has been to offer high quality public programs associated with photography and art works in all media. Our mission was stated in Railroad Heritage No. 1, 2000: “Through the preservation and presentation of art and photography, the Center offers a new and unprecedented view of the railroad’s influence on American culture.” Our journal, Railroad Heritage®, provides a written record of historic and contemporary work in railroad photography and art. The two latest issues have broken new ground. No. 17 is about women in railroading with Shirley Burman as guest editor. No. 18, “Railroading Journeys,” is a retrospective devoted to the life and times of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, whose books changed the way Americans think about–and look at–railroads and railroading. Our next issue will focus on the photographic accomplishments of famed railroad artist Ted Rose, known mostly for his astonishing watercolors but an excellent photographer as a youth and young man.

Our first exhibition, “Railroads and Photography: 150 Years of Great Images,” opened in 1999 at Railfair at the California State Railroad Museum. The exhibition since has traveled to Altoona, Pennsylvania; Madison, Wisconsin; Lake Forest, Illinois; Champaign, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Carson City and Ely, Nevada; and Kennesaw, Georgia.

In 2006, a productive year overall, the Center expanded its exhibitions program. We presented “Railroads and the American Landscape: Ted Rose Paintings and Photographs,” at Marquette University, Milwaukee, and the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. “The Last Steam Railroad in America: Railroad Photographs of O. Winston Link” in collaboration with Thomas H. Garver at the Southeast Missouri Regional Museum, Cape Girardeau.

The Ted Rose exhibition reopens May 17, 2008, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg. Other 2008 exhibitions have included “Locomotion and the Good Life: The Railroad Photography of O. Winston Link” at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento and “It’s Work: 150 Years of Railroad Workers at Work” at the Carnegie Arts Center in Alliance, Nebraska.

Our annual conference, “Conversations about Photography,” and awards program, both established in 2003, set the pace for national discussion about contemporary railroad photography and encouragement of young photographers to become a part of the community. Lake Forest College’s archives and special collections department acts as a co-sponsor and hosts the conference In 2006, conferences in Milwaukee and College Station, Texas, celebrated the centennial of the diesel locomotive and provided insights about its visual impact on the landscape of railroading.

Our national reach expanded in 2003 with “Representations of Railroad Work, Past and Present,” a three-year program with major support from the North American Railway Foundation. The Center created seven photography exhibits that have been displayed on the east and west coasts and at eleven locations in between. Venues included Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. It’s Work, a summary report, features memorable photographs from these exhibits. We have explored visually the story of the people who built the railroads, rail by rail, sometimes using their own words. As these exhibitions continue to tour and as other individuals and institutions pick up the story, long-term impacts multiply. Thousands of people across the country have seen our exhibits’ provocative images and have learned from their informative captions about railroads, workers, and photography–and the impacts of all three.

This web site, www.railphoto-art.org, vigorously supports all of the Center’s programs, and makes significant contributions to the visual record of railroading through its galleries and expanding presence. Our next years promise to make an even greater impression on the visual heritage of railroading, carrying the story of railroads’ importance and heritage to ever-widening audiences in the age of digital expansion.

The Center, incorporated in 1997 as a nonprofit Wisconsin organization, has received 501(c)3 status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The Donnelley and Lee Library at Lake Forest (Illinois) College serves as the Center’s archive. The Center’s quarterly journal, Railroad Heritage, is mailed to donors of $50 or more a year. Send gifts to 313 Price Place, Suite 13, Madison, WI 53705-3262

In the Media

  • “Historic Photos Enter Digital Age,” Trains magazine, February 2008, page 66.
  • “Center Launches Internet Archive–railroadheritage.org,” Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Newsletter, Fall 2007, pages 22-24.
  • CTC Board Railroads Illustrated featured the exhibit, “Still a World Apart: Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders,” in its September 2005 issue.
  • The Chicago Tribune covered the Center in “Double Exposure, Photo Collection Captures the Growth of Railroads and Film,” an article which appeared in the transportation section Sunday, September 15, 2002. In Chicago editions, the article appeared on pages 1 and 5 of section 12.
  • “Back On Track” in Lake Forest College’s Spectrum Magazine (Spring 2006, pages 14-15) reports that “Railfan Sayre Kos ’07 transfers to Lake Forest College after attending a railroad photography conference on campus.”