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collections > permanent collections > photographs > william herman rau
 

William Herman Rau
(American, 1855-1920)
Horseshoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad, n.d., c. 1901
Albumen print, 18” x 45”
R.K. Mellon Family Foundation Art Acquisition Endowment Fund (95.147)


William Herman Rau was a master of albumen landscape photography.  Although he traveled widely in his early career, he is today best known for his Pennsylvania Railroad photographs, made to encourage rail travel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Horseshoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad depicts the famous curve of the Pennsylvania Railroad near Altoona.  Shot with a special camera that Rau built himself, and printed in an impressive 18 by 45-inch format, the photograph successfully captures the expansive mountain setting of this engineering marvel.  The 180-degree panorama adopted by Rau soon became the standard photographic image of the Horseshoe Curve, and has since been reproduced in countless souvenir views, helping to make the landmark a Pennsylvania icon.

Rau’s interest in photography began early.  At age nineteen, the Philadelphia native secured a position on a U.S. government expedition to the South Pacific.  This experience paved the way for his participation in other photographic surveys, including a summer spent with William Henry Jackson in Colorado, and a voyage to Egypt with noted photographer Edward L. Wilson.  By the mid-1880s, Rau had returned permanently to Philadelphia, where he operated a photographic studio with his brother George.  Hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1890, he spent the next five years documenting the rail line from New York to Pittsburgh.  Rau also served as official photographer for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland.  Ranked among the leaders of his profession after the turn of the twentieth century, Rau fell into obscurity not long after his death in 1920.  Only in recent years has his work been rediscovered and reassessed as a significant contribution to American photography.