Friday, November 16, 2012

A. J. Russell, Photographer Extraordinaire



While researching Double Crossing, I utilized several photos taken by A. J. Russell during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. They came in handy for describing the historical landscapes - completely changed by now, after over 125 years. I didn't think much of these photos, except how convenient they'd been and easy to find on the internet. I saw this photo of the Dale Creek bridge and used it for my book's central danger point -- which I have to admit, came in very handy. Call it exploitation, if you will.

Shame on me.

I didn't consider the man behind the camera lens. These photos are true gems, taken by a courageous American. They are more than mere historical photos of a time period in our country's history. They reflect a rugged natural world, true. But they also reflect the man who carried his equipment across country, sharing the ordeals of the laborers who built the railroad, the tough conditions experienced by surveyors, the hastily built bridges and tracks laid down in the race against time between the Union and Central Pacific railroad companies. Russell was present at Promontory, also, for the famous May celebration in 1869.

Born and raised in New York, Andrew J. Russell worked as a portrait and landscape painter. Perhaps that's where he developed such an eye for grandeur. In 1862, he assisted in organizing the local militia to serve in the "War of Rebellion." A.J. no doubt trudged along with his Army compatriots and faced the fears and boredom until getting an opportunity in February of 1863 to learn photography. From a cameraman, E.G. Fowx, associated with Matthew Brady's studio--what a happy chance.

Russell became the Army's first official photographer and worked under General Haupt's direction, taking photos of busy army engineers' work -- especially on railroads. Which led to surviving the worst of that time of war, and segued naturally into an interest in photographing the construction of the Union Pacific railroad in 1868, only five years later. By that time, Russell's skills had been surely honed. You can see the evidence in the product. The railroad executives cooperated with Russell, of course, no dummies they, since they needed investors and politicians' support -- along with the public once the line was finished. Even the Shoshone Indians, to the right, posed for a photo. Behind them lies the unspoiled west, soon to host sprawling suburbs and strip malls within a hundred years.

Russell traveled three times out west between 1868 and 1869, with multiple cameras, chemicals, glass plates plus a portable darkroom. Yes, *glass* plates. And chemicals. Cameras like the Brownie box style or handy  Polaroids and digital models hadn't been invented back then, too bad. But despite the difficulties, using his own "wet-plate" negatives, Russell documented the railroad's construction work. Amazing.

We have much to be thankful for when seeing these photographs. They show the American west at its most innocent, unspoiled time. Russell's work -- 200+ negatives and 400+ stereographs -- has a home in the Oakland Museum. They portray a changing America, a healing America, and the one major engineering feat that brought East and West together via the transcontinental railroad. His images were used in advertising, in a book put out by the Union Pacific, to illustrate guides for travelers and for public lecturers talking about the American West.

I don't know how much Russell earned from his photographs. Probably not enough. The photo to the right was taken by General Haupt, probably during the War of Rebellion -- known now as the Civil War, although there was nothing civil about it. He looks young, an adventurer and willing to undertake just about anything. Especially a project as daunting as traveling out west before the railroads had been completed.

Russell died in 1902, back in New York. I'd like to raise a Thanksgiving toast to Mr. Russell's memory. Thanks, A.J. We'd never have seen the west before it was truly conquered if not for your work.






Images courtesy of http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/

16 comments:

Ellen O'Connell said...

Great post and pics, Meg. Evidently Haupt and his engineers did miraculous things during that war, whatever you call it (I thought it was the South that called it the War of the Rebellion). I read something Abraham Lincoln said when he observed a bridge that the Rebels had blown up and that Haupt and his men rebuilt in record time saying how fantastic it was that they could construct something that looked as if it was made of toothpicks that would hold a train. Your first picture reminded me.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Meg, thanks for sharing this information. I knew of Matthew Brady, but hadn't heard of A J Russell. I enjoyed your post.

C.S.Moore said...

Such an interesting post!

Meg said...

Doesn't it look like toothpicks?? LOL scary. And yes, I had to put the Dale Creek bridge into Double Crossing. Scared me just writing about it!

Meg said...

I'd heard of Brady while researching Civil War, but AJ came up while searching for western pix. Remington had his paintings, but I think AJ did even better with his photos. Shows the true innocence of the west, imo.

Meg said...

Thanks, C.S.! Glad you stopped by. :-)

Ron Scheer said...

Excellent tribute. Early photographers had to compete for a long time with painters and illustrators who could represent the West more dramatically and colorfully. Photographs were often used as references for them, and then discarded. Maybe 90% of early photographs, a rich historical treasure trove, were thus lost.

A good book on 19th century photographers in the West is Martha Sandweiss' PRINT THE LEGEND.

Lyn Horner said...

Meg, I love your post! It hits close to home because I, too, used the Dale Creek bridge in Darlin' Druid. It scares the bejeebers out Jessie, the heroine. She's afraid of heights and nearly faints as the train inches onto the bridge. Did you see a photo of the sign advising engineers to slow their locomotive to 4 miles per hour? I found it in one of the many books about the Union Pacific. I wouldn't be surprised if A.J. Russell took the photo.

BTW I searched online to see if A.J. might be related to the famous western painter, Charles M. Russell, but couldn't find any family connection.

Ginger Simpson said...

A wonderful post and just one more example why people should follow Cowboy Kisses and learn more about all the research that goes into writing great Western novels.

Paty Jager said...

The men who traipsed across the country when photography was new and captured this land were pioneers and great historians. Wonderful post!

I have a great uncle who photographed the Indians around Chadron NE. One of these days I want to get back there and see if I can find some of his work. My dad talks about it all the time.

jeff7salter said...

very interesting info on this photographer.
I've also read a bit about Matt. Brady ... and learned that Brady did not actually shoot all the "Brady" photos (that are attributed to him). He had a small staff of guys out shooting stuff.

Meg said...

WOW, Ron! You always have such great info. Thanks!

Meg said...

Gosh, Lyn, I never even thought of AJ and Charles being related! Interesting bridge, isn't it? :-D

Meg said...

Thanks, Ginger! :-D I do love research.

Meg said...

Oooh, I'd love to see some of those photos!

Meg said...

HA! You learn something every day, Jeff! So Brady was like some authors whose name is on the book, but their "staff" does the writing? Hmm. ;-D