Railways and photography have a history that go hand in hand. The first photographs were produced in the mid-1830s, just as the first railways in Britain were becoming established.
As photography became more widespread, this new technology was quickly applied to recording and celebrating the growing railway infrastructure.
The earliest surviving photograph to show the operational railway dates from around 1843. Taken by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, it shows the newly opened Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway station at Linlithgow in the foreground of a composition which shows the railway in the context of the town.
Early photographic equipment was cumbersome and difficult to use, requiring in effect an on-site darkroom to prepare and develop the glass plate immediately before and after the image was taken. But this wasn’t considered a hindrance; by the 1850s photography was being applied to locomotive engineering as well as the construction of new railway lines. Photographic records were taken of the construction of Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge, and Brunel’s bridges over the Tamar and the Wye.
By the end of the 1860s railway companies, engineers and contractors were regularly employing the services of photographers to record the building of their new railway lines, stations, bridges and tunnels.
These 19th century images give us a unique insight into the original construction of today’s railway; not just the scale of the engineering task, but also the impact on the landscape and the working conditions of the railway navvy.
By the late 19th century railway companies also routinely used photography in publicity, it being widely used in postcard series, booklets and company magazines.
Landscape photography also became important and prints were often displayed in railway carriages not only for decoration but also to encourage passengers to explore these places which of course were served by the company’s lines.
In July 1897 The Railway Magazine was launched, which changed the relationship between railways and photography. It was the first railway publication aimed at the general public and made liberal use of railway images. It quickly established a market for amateur and independent photographers who were making the most of improvements in lenses, faster shutter speeds, better development processes and ever more portable equipment.
Initially this enthusiast photography focused on the locomotive, the power and speed of the engine. This genre reached its peak after World War Two and there were many prolific railway photographers who were driven to record the last days of steam in the landscape as these engines were replaced by diesel and lines were closed through the 1960s.
At this time a new genre of railway photography emerged which focused less on the locomotive and more on the railway itself, particularly as a focus for rural and urban landscape photography. This has produced many images that hold the same beauty and fascination appreciated by the early railway and photography pioneers.
Lines in the Landscape
Network Rail helps to celebrate this genre with the Lines in the Landscape award, part of the annual Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. This award is for the image that “best captures the spirit of today’s rail network as it relates to the landscape around it”. Winning photographs have included images of London Bridge Station, the Ribblehead Viaduct, and the Forth Bridge.