World Photo Day: The Changing Fortunes of Photography

by Glenn Willumson, author of Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad

This guest post is part of a series for World Photo Day. Some of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of photography-related topics will share stories throughout the day. We hope these personal glimpses into their work will inspire a broad community of readers. Follow along throughout the day for more.

Scholarly attention to photography has changed dramatically during my lifetime. When Helmut Gernsheim attempted to sell what was arguably the greatest private collection of photography, he could find no museum that was interested. After years of searching for a partner, in 1963, Gernsheim finally agreed to transfer ownership to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, an archive better known for its manuscripts and books than for any fine art-related production. Had he waited ten years, Gernsheim would have found a ready market for his collection, because during the 1970s, a group of dealers and museums elevated photography into the aesthetic, and commercial, realm we know it today.

With this acceptance, new questions could be asked about how photography has impacted the social, political, economic, and cultural world over the last 150 years. Since it’s beginnings, photographs have changed the way we interacted with friends and family, elected leaders, conceptualized modern industry, and imagined distant lands and peoples. It is not just that photography makes image-making available to so many more people; it is the way those people chose to use photographs to their own ends.


In the case of the first transcontinental railroad, insightful men like E. B. Crocker realized that the mass production of stereographs—three dimensional photographs—could be used to further the interests of the Central Pacific Railroad. As the first business to create a corporate archive, between 1865 and the transcontinental railroad’s completion in 1869, the Central Pacific used its stereographs to persuade politicians, businessmen, and the general public of the efficacy of their seemingly impossible effort to build a railroad through the heart of the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.

Photography has had—and continues to have—a profound impact on our understanding of the world. The photographs of the transcontinental railroad are just one small example of why it is imperative that we turn a critical eye to photographic history at the same time that we celebrate World Photography Day 2015.

WillumsonGlenn Willumson is Director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies and Professor of Art History at the University of Florida.