A Passion for Trains
Whether chasing the freight trains that criss-cross the country or repeatedly admiring the commuter lines that practically ran through his backyard, the late Richard Steinheimer evinced a lifelong passion for trains. That dedication prompted the theme for Robert Mann Gallery's exhibition of the photographer's work, which will survey a wide-range of classical images from across his career. Steinheimer passed away in May of this year.
Well-known to railfans, Steinheimer was undeniably a pioneer in the world of railroad and train photography. Taking up the camera seriously in the years following World War II, he was influential in precipitating a move away from the conventional aesthetic known as the 3/4 speed-shot or "smoking wedgie," which focused on the speed of the train at the expense of all other contextual information or compositional options. Steinheimer advocated a more expressive approach to his subject matter, seeming to capture what one commentator has described as "the very real impression [of the railroad] as it is seen and heard and felt," coupled with an attentiveness to the rich culture and stunning landscapes that enveloped the railway. Such innovations found a receptive audience, fueled by Steinheimer's relentless experimentation and willingness to embrace the revolutionary changes that railroads underwent in the postwar era. Between 1948 and 2001, the popular magazine Trains published well over 400 of his photographs.
The success of these pictures owes a great deal to their awareness of the role that trains play on a significant cultural level. Writing in the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition Starlight on the Rails, Steinheimer perceptively observed, "As Americans we have a collective psyche that compels us to be on the move. Call it our myth of mobility. We believe that going somewhere else, down a distant track, away from present situations, can only mean broader fulfillment: a remedy for what ails us. It's our restlessness that best understands and appreciates the symbolism trains and railroads play in our lives." But the achievement of the photographs also extends beyond their topical interest to railfans. Like his contemporary O. Winston Link, whose innovations in night train images Steinheimer largely anticipated, Steinheimer developed a wide-range of formal, technical and narrative effects that are now the staple for many of the dominant currents in contemporary photography.
Richard Steinheimer was born in Chicago, IL, in 1929 and was raised in California. Several monographs of his photography have been published, including Backwoods Railroad of the West, one of the most collectible railroad books, as well as numerous survey books. He was a frequent contributor to publications such as Trains, Railfan, Locomotive & Railway Preservation, and Vintage Rail. His photographs are included in many significant private, corporate and institutional collections.