Photography And The American West

Feb 14, 2019

How much can a photograph tell us about our past? Historian Martha Sandweiss says images like the one of the railroads meeting at Promontory Summit “can describe, but they rarely explain.”

How much can a photograph tell us about our past? You’ve probably seen the 1869 image of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads meeting at Promontory Summit. What you can’t see though are the Chinese laborers who laid more than 10 miles of track in one day. The historian Martha Sandweiss says photographs “can describe, but they rarely explain.” She’s coming to Utah, and joins us to talk about 19th century photography and what you can learn by what those photos show and don’t show.

This Saturday, February 16 at 11 a.m., Martha Sandweiss will give a free lecture at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. It's called Discovering History Through a Photograph: One Picture, Eight People, and the Unexpected Stories of American Life. It's presented in conjunction with the UMFA photography exhibit The Race to Promonotry: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West. Admission to the museum is free all day this Saturday.

Martha Sandweiss is a professor of history at Princeton, a research fellow at Huntington Library, and president of The Western History Association. Among her books is Print the Legend: Photography and the American West. [Indie bookstores|Amazon]