'A Life in Railroad Photography' Celebrates Wallace W. Abbey

May 9, 2018

Wallace Abbey captured images of trains and how railroads played a role in shaping large cities for decades, beginning in the 1940s.  And in doing that, the late photographer chronicled not just how the railroad industry changed over 70 years, but how our culture shifted.

Abbey, who died in 2014, was a longtime Milwaukee-based photographer and an editor at Trains magazine in the 1950s.

"So in Milwaukee, you had streamlined passenger trains on the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago and Northwestern that had some of the state-of-the-art equipment. Very top-notch service, multiple trains a day.  So it was this really halcyon period, and Abbey was right there in the middle of it," says Scott Lothes, president and executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography and Art in Madison.

Lothes, along with Milwaukee journalist Kevin Keefe, captured more than a hundred of Abbey's intimate images of trains along with interpretations and other text in a new book, Wallace W. Abbey: A Life in Railroad Photography.

Lothes says that this book allows the viewer to go beyond the typical train photos Abbey captured for publications. "Time and again you could see very clearly the annual report cover photograph that his employers sent him out to take, but then at the same time he would often go off and go through three or four more rolls of film shooting whatever he wanted to at the same place," he explains.

Lothus and Keefe will talk about the new book Friday evening at the opening of an exhibition of Abbey’s photographs at the Grohmann Museum on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, but first, they spoke with Lake Effect’s Bonnie North about the project: