John E. Gruber, a noted photographer and author who helped move railroad photography into America’s art museums and the founder of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, died on October 9 after a battle with cancer. He was 82.
A railfan since a childhood ride on the Rio Grande’s three-foot gauge San Juan Express, John’s passion for the rails and his devotion to photography as an art form served him well from the beginning of his lengthy career as a freelance photographer. He gained national attention for photo series published in Trains in in 1961 and continued as a prolific creator and contributor of photos, articles and books for the rest of his life. Prominent in his photographic work was the human element of railroading, and in particular, portraiture of railroad employees in the workplace.
On a below-zero afternoon at Cloquet, Minn., steam from a Duluth & North Eastern locomotive covers the sun. The January 1962 photograph has been a symbol for the Center for Railroad Photography & Art since its inception by Gruber in 1997. Photo by John Gruber, courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
Long a railroad preservationist, by the late 1990s, he became concerned with the preservation of railroad-related photographic work, and spearheaded creation of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in 1997, serving as president until 2013. In 2002 he created the annual railroad photography contest, which was renamed in his honor in 2012, the John E. Gruber Creative Photography Awards Program, winners of which are published in the Center’s journal Railroad Heritage and in Railfan & Railroad.
A Chicago native and longtime resident of Madison, Wisconsin, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin journalism program and did graduate work in landscape architecture. He found a home in the university’s publications department, serving as an editor and manager until 1995.
On their final day of operation, Milwaukee Road’s eastbound and westbound “Afternoon Hiawatha” passenger trains pass near Wisconsin Dells on January 23, 1970. The photograph reveals an inside view of the westbound’s Skytop lounge-observation car Cedar Rapids, looking out at its sister car Coon Rapids on the eastbound. The trains ran daily between Chicago and Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Photo by John Gruber, courtesy Center for Railroad Photography & Art
In addition to his many contributions to railroad magazines (including our predecessor titles Railroad and Railfan), he edited Vintage Rails from 1995 to 1999, and did stints as volunteer editor for Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society and the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. Most recently, Gruber was noted for his work tracing the present-day lineage of the workers portrayed in Jack Delano’s wartime-era portraits of railroad workers.
Surviving is his wife since 1962, Bonnie Jean (Barstow) Gruber, two children, Richard of Prairie du Sac, and Timothy of Madison; and several grandchildren, great-grandchildren and nephews. A funeral service will be at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave., Madison, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 27, with visitation at noon and a reception following the service.
—Eric Berger, Railfan & Railroad