Figge Art Museum Presents Tracks The Railroad in Photographs from the George Eastman House Collection

The Figge Art Museum Presents Tracks: The Railroad in Photographs from the George Eastman House Collection open January 15 – April 24, 2011.

Organized by the George Eastman House, this exciting exhibition explores 160 years of railroad and photographic history. Both trains and photographs emerged around the same time in history and can be credited with changing how we perceive the world. Trains offered access to places that seemed impossible to reach by foot while photography captured details often missed by the human eye. In the United States, the railroad and photography played an important role in opening the West and in the development of national identity. Even today, when cars and airplanes have become the preferred methods of travel, trains continue to hold sway over our imaginations. We continue to cherish memories of playing with model railroads and of waiting on a train platform for a glimpse of an oncoming train, hearing its far-off warning whistle.

In this survey of railroad images from around the world, trains appear as potent emblems of the modern industrial age. They played a crucial role in transforming the social and physical landscape. William Henry Jackson’s heroic visions of trains rumbling through majestic mountains celebrate the technological advances that allowed mankind to tame the previously uncharted wilderness of the American West. Robert Misrach similarly embraces the awesome beauty of nature but endows his scenes of lonely, inhospitable places with an atmosphere of unease that calls into question the presumption that technology can conquer nature. Alvin Langdon’s photograph of a train rushing past the smokestacks of Pittsburgh’s factories also offers a more ambivalent view of technology, while L. Wright’s and Lori Nix’s scenes of a train wreck serve as more cautionary statements about technology and its effect on nature. Lewis Hine and Aaron Siskind, on the other hand, interpret modernity in more human terms. Hine focuses on the workers who oiled the Machine Age and shows how industrial revolution changed the very nature of work. Siskind represents the African-American porters who worked for the George Pullman Railroad Company and successfully formed a union that anticipated the later civil rights movement.

The range of photographs and concerns represented in this exhibition is sure to please a variety of audiences, including history buffs, lovers of the American West and train enthusiasts. Tracks will be accompanied by a companion exhibition that will explore the history and significance of the railway in the Quad-Cities area.

Image: George Eastman House

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