SACRAMENTO — California State Parks and the California State Railroad Museum debut a powerful new exhibit titled “Double Exposure: Photography and the Transcontinental Railroad” on Sept. 14.
The exhibition examines the emergence of photography and the ways in which the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads used the new medium during the construction of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. Ultimately, the technology of photography not only helped to tell the story of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, but also helped to shape public perception and foster acceptance for this massive endeavor that encouraged westward travel and settlement.
While today’s advanced technologies make taking photographs and sharing images convenient, 19th century photography was a complex, lengthy and limited process. With stereo views and three-dimensional viewing devices, seeing and sharing three-dimensional works was a wildly popular pastime after the Civil War. Works by photographers Andrew J. Russell, Alfred A. Hart and others will be on display and guests will be able to view many of these using stereoscopes and stereopticons. These gifted cameramen captured images of the construction of the railroad as well as the alien landscapes and geological formations of the West, despite the fragile nature of photographic processing and the challenging terrain. The sheer volume of their work, and the degree of difficulty it took to obtain a single photograph at the time, speak to the importance of the endeavor.
The new exhibit will showcase a timeline of the development of photography from 1839 through today, along with a wide range of photography elements, including original daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, salted-paper prints, stereographs, albumen prints and tintypes, high quality photographic reproductions, illustrations in popular newspapers and booklets, cameras and equipment, historic graphics and maps. The science and optics behind early photography are covered and visitors will learn to tell the various types of photographs apart. It will also show how the leaders of both railroad companies used the photos for specific purposes — raising capital in Central Pacific’s case and (for both) showing proof of their progress, making the landscape seem tame, and later, encouraging people to settle along the route.
In addition, the exhibit will illuminate how artists’ woodcuts (line art renditions of photos) in the popular press changed the supposed reality of the photos, and sometimes conflicted with the railroads’ desired messages.
Museum visitors will also have the opportunity to explore additional content and take pictures in a special photo booth set-up as part of the exhibit. Another interactive component, a detective card game, will help families explore the exhibit together — allowing children to lead the way to discover more about the materials, people, technology and history behind photography’s role in documenting this great 19th century feat.
The “Double Exposure” exhibit will be located in the Mezzanine Gallery of the Railroad Museum and will remain on display through Oct. 5, 2014. For more information about the California State Railroad Museum visit californiastaterialroadmuseum.org or call (916) 445-6645.