Alfred Hart was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1816. Hart initially worked as a portrait painter before he moved to California in 1863 to work as a photographer. By 1864, he was the official photographer for the Central Pacific Railroad. As the railroad's photographer, Hart could pause railroad construction to pose the railroad workers or even stop trains at photo opportunities. He published 364 images as the Central Pacific Railroad photographer between 1864 and 1869. Eventually, Charles E. Leonard of the publishing company Horton & Leonard published a book of Hart's Central Pacific photos in 1870, titled "The Traveler's Own Book." In spite of Hart's publishing success, Central Pacific director Collis Huntington hired a new railroad photographer in 1870 and Hart traveled east to offer his services as a photographer for both the Nevada and Utah Railroad and the Pullman Company. Hart did not publish a photo after he left the Central Pacific Railroad. Throughout the 1870s, Hart traveled the country before settling in New York in 1881. While he filed multiple patents for new photographic devices, Hart's inventions never made him much money. He lived in relative poverty in New York City before he returned to California in 1906. He died on March 5, 1908 in Alameda County Infirmary. While Hart is primarily remembered for his brief period as a railroad photographer, he always considered himself an artist.
[Information gathered from Mead Kibbey's excellent book, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist]
Hart used a Steno wet-plate camera, an American-made camera that was commonly used in the 1860s. Wet plate cameras required mixing collodion, a thick liquid made of dissolved nitrated cotton in alcohol, with light-sensitive salts on a pane of glass. Once the alcohol in the collodion evaporated, one placed the glass in silver nitrate to form a light sensitive compound silver iodide on the glass surface, but the pane of glass had to be exposed in the camera before the collodion dried. This process meant Hart had to act quickly, especially as he frequently took several shots of the same place within minutes of each other. His photo pack likely weighed about eighteen pounds, with his tripod making up much of that weight. His cumbersome tripod did not allow the camera to tip or turn, and it could not be adjusted much for height. Hart often chose dangerous spots to take his photos, from precarious cliffs to the top of railroad cars.
Jesse White is a professional photographer working out of Sacramento and Los Angeles Ca. He is a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, and has spent the last fifteen years working both as an IASTE member in the film industry as well as a private photographer. He is using a digital 35mm camera with lenses of equivalent focal length to that which Hart used. Complete modern replication of the Hart collection is anticipated in the spring of 2010.
The Alfred A. Hart Photo Project is in progress and we hope to post a new set of repeat photography pairs on the first of each month. Please check back regularly to explore the additions to the collection.
Our progress is as follows:
November 2009, 9 photos: Levee at Sacramento, Railroad Wharves at Sacramento, Round House at Rocklin, Capital Granite Quarry, Freight Depot at Newcastle, View in Dutch Ravine, Embankment in Dutch Ravine, Approaching Bloomer Cut, Bloomer Cut 63 Feet Looking West
December 2009, 13 photos: Rock Ravine Near Auburn, High Embankment, Cut Near Auburn Station, Auburn Depot, Road East of Station, High Embankment Near Auburn Ravine, Road and Trestle Near Lovell's Ranch, Trestle in Clipper Ravine, Trestle at Clipper Ravine, Colfax From the South, Colfax Looking East, Teamster Camp at Colfax, Depot at Colfax
February 2010, 7 photos: Bound for the Mountains, Auburn Ravine, Dry Creek Bridge, New Hampshire Rocks, Deep Cut at Trail Ridge, Excursion Train Cape Horn, Cut Near New England Mills
Crofutt, Geo. A. Crofutt's Tran-Continental Tourists' Guide. Vol. 3. New York and San Francisco, 1871.
Shearer, Frederick E., ed. The Pacific Tourist. New York: Adams & Bishop, 1884.
Kibbey, Mead B., and Peter E. Palmquist, ed. The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist. Sacramento, California: California State Library Association, 1996.
The Alfred A. Hart Photo Collection, Special Collections, Stanford University.
Much of the content of this site and analysis of the Hart photos comes from Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. Railroaded, his forthcoming book set to be released from Norton May 31, 2011, explores the impact of 19th century American railroads on the settlement of the West.
Glenn Willumson, for his enthusiasm and support in intially getting this project off the ground.
Sanaz Motahari-Asl and Nicole Coleman, Stanford Humanities Center, for their invaluable help building this website and coding the GoogleEarth API.
Special thanks to Margaret Kimball, former University Archivist and Christy Smith from Special Collections, Stanford University.