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2019 Annual Conference


March 07-10, 2019

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2019 SPE Annual Conference: The Myths of Photography and the American Dream / Major support by The Joy Family Legacy Foundation

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Richard Koenig

SPE Member since 1998
Member Chapter: Midwest

Contemporary Views Along the First Transcontinental Railroad

Begun during the summer of 2010 with the generous support of the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Directions Initiative, I am making a comprehensive series of photographs along the historical route of the first transcontinental railroad in North America. My topic combines the history and tradition of western landscape photography with the subject being the original route of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads upon completion.

Begun during the Civil War it was not until that conflict was over that construction on the Pacific Railroad really got rolling. In a race for government subsidies and land grants, the Central Pacific built eastward from Sacramento, California, while the Union Pacific built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. They eventually met each other on May 10th 1869 just north of Great Salt Lake at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. I follow in the footsteps of photographers such as Alfred A. Hart and A. J. Russell who expertly recorded the progress of this historic construction project.

My goal is to give the viewer as strong of a connection as possible to this 19th century engineering marvel through the remaining visual evidence of the human altered landscape--while not turning my back on the contemporary aspects of it. Two kinds of digital shooting are being done while in the field--large file, multiple image panoramas (samples seen here) as well as a more intuitive form of shooting (single-frame images).

A couple of things led me to this multi-year project--the first was the study of the history of photography, which I teach at Kalamazoo College. I was always drawn to the 19th century western landscape photographs by the likes of Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson (which in turn led me to the work of Hart and Russell). Another thing that drove me toward this project was a Pogues song called Navigator. This song describes the danger and hard work of the Irish laborers building the railroad. The Pacific Railroad was one of the last great civil-engineering projects essentially built by hand--and this piece of music helped me visualize it from the bottom up.

[The Union Pacific employed many Irish to grade and lay track; the Central Pacific employed up to 10,000 Chinese who did a stellar job getting the road through the Sierra Nevada range and across deserted stretches of Nevada and Utah.]

Beyond the austere beauty of the West, I want my photographs to contextualize the historic route--to show the landscape through which it runs (cities, plains, mountains, and desert). While I have photographed nearly the entire route, I tend to linger where the steel has been pulled up--that portion of the line that has been abandoned for a less steep or curvy alignment. Through the absence of contemporary rails, trains, buildings and people, I find it most easy to imagine a 19th century presence.

In the end, I want this work is to be a pictorial accompaniment to well-established textual histories of the building of the railroad--the foremost being David Haward Bain's "Empire Express".

Storefronts at Colfax

Donner Lake from Summit, Tunnels Seven and Eight Visible

Beowawe, Nevada

Bridge over Humboldt River, Ten-Mile Canyon

Utah-Nevada state line, Rhyolite Butte in Distance

Kelton Cemetery

Climbing up to Promontory

"Ten Miles Of Track Laid In One Day"

The Golden Spike National Historic Site

Just east of Promontory Summit: site of CP's Big Fill and UP's Big Trestle

West of Corinne, Promontory Mountains in the distance

Echo City, Utah

Echo Canyon near Death's Rock

Structures at Piedmont, Wyoming

Ames Monument, Old Sherman

Pine Bluffs, Wyoming

Bridge over North Platte River, just east of North Platte, Nebraska

Tracks along the Lincoln Highway just east of Elkhorn

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