The Johnson Museum is pleased to host this exhibition of Frank Barry’s haunting photographs documenting the demise of an industrial icon, the steam engine. Barry has traveled all over the globe in search of his subject and here we have just a sampling of his output, sharing his fascination with us.
We would like to thank Rebecca Barry for her eloquent essay, and Christopher A. Wright for his judicious aid in the printing of these works, an effort that enhances our appreciation of the photographs’ subtle nuances.
Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
Frank Barry, my father, has always loved trains. When he was four he escaped from a doctor’s office while his sister was getting vaccinated to explore some nearby train tracks. By the time he was seven, he was boarding the train by himself to visit his father at work several stops down the line. In college, he used his vacations to hitchhike all over the country photographing steam engines where they were still running. To him, these engines seemed alive. They hissed, they whined, they roared. They were hot when they were running, warm when they were in the roundhouse. They were built during an era when manufacturing wasn’t as uniform as it is now, and, much like people, they came with their own quirks.
After college my father went to Mexico with a volunteer program that predated the Peace Corps where he drilled wells for drinking water. On his time off, he photographed steam engines and the people who worked on them. He found the railroaders there especially hospitable, and they frequently welcomed him into their engines and cabooses. Perhaps because of this, the images from Mexico have a particularly intimate quality.
For the next forty years, my father would continue to do this in his spare time, traveling all over Mexico, Central America, the United States, and seventeen other countries to capture working steam engines before they died out.
This exhibition contains scenes from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, and includes some of the best photos of his life’s work. The pictures are beautiful and dramatic, the way many photos of steam engines can be. But they are also emotional. What has always struck me my about my father’s work is not just the way it captures the majesty and drama of steam engines, but the way he humanizes his subject.
The engines in this collection are by turns lonely, powerful, and triumphant. It’s almost as if you’re looking at the world from their point of view. They wind through wooded valleys, plow snow on a ten-thousand-foot pass, inch up rugged grades, hugging tight to the sides of steep canyons. We see animals scattering at the sound of a whistle, engines resting in a roundhouse, a solitary train emitting its own plume of black smoke as it chugs toward a seventeen-thousand-foot volcano. My father has captured an era when nature still seemed to be winning, when men fixed their machines using their own physical strength and ingenuity, when people weren’t quite as suspicious of each other.
Recently, my father told me about a night he spent camping out next to a railroad line, waiting to photograph a train the next day. He woke up at four in the morning, to hear a helper engine coupling into the train four miles away. The two engines whistled, signaling that they were ready to go—two short hoots from each engine. And then, way up on the mountainside above, a coyote howled, a high-pitched, lonesome sound. It was as if, my father said, the animal was responding to another living creature. And that perhaps the coyote knew something we don’t—that steam engines really do have souls.
So do these photos. Look, and see for yourself.