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Special Collection

Unqiue photos being shown at SAMA Altoona

Courtesy photo This photo of the Pennsylvania Limited on the Horseshoe Curve is one of many on display at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Altoona.

The 33-work exhibition “William H. Rau: Connecting to Community,” presents a unique view of the albumen landscape photography collection at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Altoona on display through May 9.

Eight guest curators selected the featured photos from the nearly 600 prints in the special collection. The William H. Rau PRR Photograph Collection is owned by American Premier Underwriters, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, with the Altoona Area Public Library, and maintained by the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Altoona, as part of the museum’s Special Collections. Between 1890 and 1895, Rau documented the rail line from New York to Pittsburgh and the series is among his best-known works.

“The Altoona location of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art houses the William H. Rau collection of photographs,” said Barbara Hollander, Altoona site coordinator, about SAMA-Altoona and Rau: “This is a tremendous responsibility, to be charged with the care and handling for this rare, archival treasury of albumen photos. Rau’s photographs are exemplars of late-nineteenth-century documentary and scenic photography. The beauty of them today is in the modern viewer’s appreciation of Rau’s meticulous attention to detail and his showcasing of the beauty of the Pennsylvania landscape and beyond. To view these photos is to be transported back in time, to be a part of the delicious charm and tranquility of the American landscape.”

Hollander is one of the guest curators who were chosen for “their recognizable devotion for keeping the history of Altoona and its railroad legacy alive,” according to exhibition Curator Julie Fether Rockwell. She was assisted by Neil Young and Erica Kilbride, who also selected a “favorite” Rau photo.

Guest curator Cyndi Hershey selected “Pennsylvania Limited on Horseshoe Curve” because it evoked family memories of visiting the Horseshoe Curve and the of her grandfathers and father who worked for the railroad over the decades.

“Because it’s impossible to showcase all of the photographs from the collection together, it’s important to feature photographs that are rarely displayed,” Fether Rockwell explained in an email. “To me, the ‘hidden gems’ (and there are many) have unique characteristics because they don’t necessarily include ‘trains and the rails.’ They are intimate images of farmlands, forests, the beach, stately architectures, rough shipyards, and steaming coke ovens. There are even photographs in the collection of the Gettysburg Battlefield. They illustrate both the beauty of nature and the progress of industry at the height of the Industrial Age — a fusion that would forever change the American landscape.”

Her goal as curator for this exhibition was different as she wanted “to allow significant members of the community to have an opportunity to choose from the Rau Collection and feature their unique narratives. … it has allowed the exhibition to ‘breathe’ with more life by collaborating in the curatorial process, which can be extremely limiting from a one-person perspective.”

Fether Rockwell said, “To me, the most enjoyment I have had is experiencing the development of the exhibition through our guest curators’ eyes. To watch Cyndi Hershey get excited to choose a favorite, wax poetic with Noel Feeley as we sigh at the aesthetic beauty of an image, and share the massive collection printed in binders to Joe Servello who ‘never knew there were so many,’ is priceless. These ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments only enrich my vision of what I wanted the exhibition to convey. It is their feelings and reflections that I care about — about why this collection is so important to our community and how fortunate we are to have it housed in Altoona. I want this exhibition to attract younger generations and give everyone an opportunity to participate by sharing their ‘favorite Rau’ from the exhibition on our Pennsylvania Railroad Tunnel chalkboard and get to know some of the Altoona movers and shakers that keep Railroad City history alive and sustain the arts for the benefit of our community.”

Visitors will also be treated to a work of photographer Michael Froio, whom Fether Rockwell describes as a “Rau aficionado.”

“We had featured a selection of photographs from his ‘On the Mainline’ series with the last Rau exhibition in 2017. Jane Sheffield wanted to mirror one of her Rau selections from the Lewistown Narrows with one of Michael’s that is in the vicinity of Rau’s for a ‘then and now’ view.”

Froio has described Rau’s work as “spectacular” which he first discovered in 2003. In an interview featured on his website, Froio tells editor Edd Fuller in “The Trackside Photographer:” “I found Rau’s work so compelling … in that Rau’s work focused on the destination, the engineering marvel of the railroad itself and how it brought order and civility to the landscape. The train itself was secondary, it was more of a harmonious, machine in the garden if you will.”

The current Rau exhibit also features some surprises, photographs that have either not been on display in a long time or have never been on display in Altoona. Fether Rockwell preferred to “keep them a surprise.”

For the second time this year, and for the first time with a Rau exhibition, SAMA encourages visitors to share on their social media and SAMA social media sites,using the hashtag, #SAMARau.

“Social media is actually a quite developed engagement strategy in today’s world of museums in the digital age. … and gives the visitor an opportunity to become involved instead of just being a spectator.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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