Just about 150 years ago, as the first Transcontinental Railroad was nearing completion, the Union Pacific Railroad was laying its tracks heading west from Omaha, NE. It hired Andrew J. Russell, a former Civil War photographer, to document that herculean effort. It was Russell who shot the famed photograph of the meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah, between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad, which was building east from Sacramento. But as the Oakland Museum of California’s fascinating new exhibit, Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell demonstrates, Russell’s prodigious talent captured much more than that one iconic image, East and West, Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail (1869), although it is prominently displayed at OMCA.
OMCA chose 60 remarkable prints of the railroad construction and the surrounding landscape from its prized collection of Russell’s nearly 650 collodion “wet plate” negatives in stereo and “imperial” (10 X 13 inch) formats. The composition and clarity of these photographs are remarkable — for 1869 particularly. OMCA also holds one of the few surviving copies of The Great West Illustrated, an album of vintage albumen prints by Russell. Framed individual prints from this album are on view, as well as more than 100 glass lantern slides.
While Russell was photographing the railroad construction in the Wyoming and Utah Territories, he took time out to document the beautiful and austere landscapes nearby. He always made sure to have a few people in those shots. Russell must have known that without comparison to human scale, it would be impossible to comprehend the vastness of the region. These areas were euphemistically described by American railroad barons and other pioneers as “uninhabited land,” although of course, they were home to many Native Americans.
There are a few poignant prints of Native Americans taken by Russell, although it appears that he maintained the prevailing 19th-century racist view of them. OMCA worked with its Native American advisory council, as it frequently does, to present a fair, two-sided view in the exhibit. Viewers can understand what was lost, as well as what was gained, by uniting the railroads.
The show also has objects to use and to touch, such as stereo glasses to replicate viewing Russell’s prints in 3-D, an iPad that one may use to zoom in closely on some pictures, and a video that explains Russell’s photographic process.
Russell’s “wet plate” negatives needed a great deal of restoration work before they were ready for public view, which was achieved with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. High-resolution digital scans of the original glass-plate negatives in OMCA’s collection can now be viewed and downloaded at no cost from its website.
The original glass camera negatives were made in the field by Russell himself using the laborious and complicated wet-plate process. Russell’s artistic achievement is made more significant because he had to cart his cumbersome equipment and toxic chemicals over the mountains, wagon roads, trails and rails.
It is unfortunate that Russell, unique among significant 19th-century landscape photographers, lacks the modern recognition his artistry deserves, even though he took one of the most famous photographs in American history. Perhaps with this exhibit and its coordination with the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, Andrew J. Russell will be restored to his rightful place in art history.
Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell is on view at the Oakland Museum of California, until September 1, 2019. For further information, visit OMCA online.