Top of page

Library of Congress Story Maps Dive into Early Photography

Share this post:

The latest Story Maps from the Library of Congress detail some of the fascinating adventures and technological innovations of early photography! Story Maps are immersive, interactive web applications that showcase the incredible stories of Library of Congress collections through text, images, multimedia, and interactive maps. You can find all Library of Congress Story Maps at Below, learn about the two latest Story Map publications and explore them for yourself!

Camera and Locomotive: Two Tracks Across the Continent
Micah Messenheimer, Prints & Photographs Division

In mid-19th century America, the race to complete a transcontinental railroad, linking population centers in the east to western settlements and the Pacific Ocean, would showcase two of the defining technologies of the era: railroads and photography. Beginning with the esteemed and innovative photographer John Plumbe and his passionate advocacy for building a transcontinental railroad in the 1830s, the stories of U.S. railroad expansion and photographic technology became intertwined. Although Plumbe’s specific rail proposals would fail to gain traction, the cause would eventually be taken up by rival entrepreneurs as well as the government. In the 1850s, Congress funded an expedition to study the feasibility of railroad routes across the rugged western landscape, an expedition that included daguerreotypist Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who took photographs as part of the important survey. A decade later, following President Lincoln’s signing of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, the race to build the transcontinental railroad was on, with two companies leading the charge: the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Along different spans of the route, three photographers, John Carbutt, Andrew Joseph Russell and Alfred Hart, would each bring their own unique perspectives, techniques, and skill sets to the job of documenting the immense engineering challenge playing out before them. Today, their photographs not only serve as vivid historical records of the achievements of the transcontinental railroad, but they also speak to the photographic technology of the time and how that technology was wielded in the hands of its early practitioners.

Railroad trestle spanning valley, with train and platform full of workers on track.
“Trestle work – Promontory Point, Salt Lake Valley” by Andrew J. Russell, [1868]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Micah Messenheimer, an Associate Curator of Photography in the Prints and Photographs Division, brings these stories of the transcontinental railroad and mid-19th century photography together in his captivating Story Map, “Camera and Locomotive.” In addition to showcasing dozens of photographs in a vivid narrative, Messenheimer maps the locations of Carbutt, Russell, and Hart’s photographs taken along the routes of the railroad, linking the extensive catalogs of each photographer to the rugged geography of the American West through illuminating, interactive maps.

Interactive map with historic map background and blue dots in foreground, with two text boxes of map-related information.
“Detail of interactive web map from “Camera and Locomotive” Story Map, by Micah Messenheimer, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Holy Land Photography: Mid-19th Century Photos of the Middle East by Francis Frith
Adam Silvia, Prints & Photographs Division

Francis Frith (1822-1898) was an English businessman who opened his own photography studio in 1850, when photography was still in its infancy. His enthusiasm for the medium and his interest in Biblical events soon led him to the Middle East, where he hoped to capture the “sacred geography” of the region in writing and, most memorably, with his camera. Among the outputs of his travels between 1856 and 1860 is Sinai and Palestine, an elaborate photographically illustrated book that brought views of the “Holy Lands” and important Biblical sites to Western audiences. Frith’s legacy is complicated by his Eurocentric views on the region and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, Sinai and Palestine remains an important project in the history of photography.

View of domes and minarets in the background, lower lying ruins in the foreground.
“Street view with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem / Frith,” by Francis Frith, c1862. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Adam Silvia, an Associate Curator of Photography in the Prints and Photographs Division, connects the 37 plates of the Sinai and Palestine book to their geographic locations in a Story Map that showcases Frith’s exceptional technique in capturing the landscape. Combining large-scale images with maps, Silvia links Frith’s writing and photography to the “sacred geography” of the Middle East and especially to the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Map of the Middle East with location marks on the right, with text and photographs relating to sites on the left.
Detail of interactive web map from “Holy Lands Photography” Story Map, by Adam Silvia, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.