Center for Railroad Photography & Art Acquires Steinheimer Collection

Richard Steinheimer was considered the “Ansel Adams of railroad photography” and crisscrossed the west throughout the mid-20th century. In one of his most memorable photographs, a Southern Pacific train crew discuss their next move in September 1952.

Center for Railroad Photography & Art Acquires Steinheimer Collection

By Railfan & Railroad Staff

MADISON, Wis. — The Center for Railroad Photography & Art announced Monday that it had acquired the photo collection of Richard Steinheimer, one of the most legendary railroad photographers of the 20th century and long considered the “Ansel Adams” of the craft. 

The Center has received nearly all of Steinheimer’s color photography, which comprises about 30,000 slides, as well as a significant selection of black and white prints and scans spanning his entire career, plus black and white negatives circa 1975 and later. Additional ancillary materials will come at a later date. 

“This is truly a monumental event in the Center’s history,” Executive Director Scott Lothes said. “From the day I joined the staff in 2008, I have hoped the Center could be the steward for Steinheimer’s photography, and I know our founder, John Gruber, also held that hope. We now have the ability to preserve and share his work thanks to the trust of Shirley Burman Steinheimer, his widow, partner, soulmate, and keeper of his tremendous visual legacy. We’re grateful for the incredible generosity of our board of directors and donors – foremost Bon French and Rich Tower, the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, and everyone who has ever supported our efforts.”

Steinheimer was born on August 23, 1929, in Chicago, and died from Alzheimer’s Disease on May 4, 2011, in Sacramento, Calif., where Shirley Burman Steinheimer still resides. A team from the Center led by archivist Adrienne Evans gathered at the Sacramento home in early June and prepared the collection for transportation to the Center’s archive in Madison, Wis., where it has safely arrived on Sunday. 

Acquisitions & Marketing Coordinator Elrond Lawrence, Archivist Adrienne Evans, Shirley Burman Steinheimer and Ken Rehor are seen in Sacramento with the Steinheimer Collection before it was shipped east late last week.

Heather Sonntag, Ph.D., associate archivist, will take the lead on processing the Steinheimer Collection supported by Elrond Lawrence and Ken Rehor, lifelong Steinheimer devotees who were part of the collection team in Sacramento.

“With this milestone achievement, combined with the Ronald C. Hill Collection in 2020 and recent agreements to acquire collections from California photography legends Tom Gildersleeve, Gordon Glattenberg, and Stan Kistler, the Center has assembled a world-class collection of western North American railroad photography,” Lothes said.

Steinheimer burst onto the railroad photography scene in the 1940s and 1950s with visually striking images of the west. In the decades to come, his work appeared in Trains Magazine, Railfan & Railroad and numerous books, with iconic titles like Backwoods Railroads of the West and The Electric Way Across the Mountains. When he wasn’t snowshoeing around Donner Pass or riding trains over Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, he worked as a commercial photographer in Silicon Valley, shooting for Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple, and other pioneering technology companies. 

Steinheimer captured this stunning image on moonlit-night in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains in December 1973. “It is The Creation and Armageddon wrapped up into one… Fort Sumpter and Iwo Jima. Falling sparks, ice, and water drop down on us from both pantographs,” Steinheimer wrote later about the photo in The Electric Way Across the Mountains

In 1983, he met fellow photographer Shirley Burman, and they created a formidable partnership that thrived for nearly two decades. Together they worked on projects for Southern Pacific, Amtrak, TTX Corp., the California State Railroad Museum, and other clients. Since his passing, Burman Steinheimer has cared for his image collection and legacy; she is currently completing a book about women in railroading and her photography collection is anticipated to come to the Center at a later date.

The Center for Railroad Photography & Art was founded in 1997 to preserve and interpret significant images of railroading. It does that through exhibits, publications and conferences. For more information, visit railphoto-art.org.

Editor’s Note and Disclosure: Associate Editor Justin Franz is a Center for Railroad Photographer & Art board member. 

This article was posted on: June 13, 2022