Beebe & Clegg: Gruber & Co. shed new light on these groundbreaking railroad photographers

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, April 22, 2018

On the cover of a new book, “Beebe & Clegg Their Enduring Photographic Legacy” is a most un-Beebe-like Beebe image. It’s a westbound Union Pacific train on Sherman Hill from a far distance with profuse smoke against a cloudy sky – definitely not the sunny day, three-quarter angle, in-your-face wedge shot that Beebe and Clegg made famous. The surprise cover of this new book is the first clue that the reader is about to experience a new and different treatment of this famous railroad publishing duo of the mid-20th century.

I picked up at copy of this 224-page retrospective at the annual Conversations event sponsored by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art earlier this month. The center published the book, written by center founder John Gruber, himself a legendary railroad photographer, young genius John Ryan, and the master of late 20th century night photos Mel Patrick. The three prepared this volume on these complex men who were partners in life, collaborators in their passion for railroad publishing, lovers of the good life, and shameless and successful self-promoters. Given that Monday, April, 23, is World Book Day, I thought it would be fitting to call out this important work.

All of us of a certain age were given or picked up 1940’s ”Highliners,” Beebe & Clegg’s megasuccessful railroad photography book, and began to see the railroad world through their lenses. More of their books arrived. Later, as we explored the short line world, the Bible became “Mixed Train Daily.” And as our curiosity into private varnish grew, we picked up a copy of “Mansions on Rails.” All of these books and many more by the two are essential parts of a personal railroad library. Name me a fan without at least one Beebe book in his or her collection, and I’ll show you a fan who desperately needs a basic appreciation for the classics of the genre.

Gruber explores the life story of the two men; the fascination with various parts of railroading, from the Colorado narrow gauge to the Virginia & Truckee. He gives us a glimpse into the amazing publicity stunts the two pulled off, including the Ma&Pa excursion that Life Magazine covered for the release of” Mixed Train Daily.” My personal favorite, though, must be the champagne toast at Promontory in 1949, complete with top hats and tailcoats. If you’ve ever been to this remote spot west of Ogden, you’ll understand the absurdity of Beebe & Clegg’s costumes, an over the top statement of appreciation for this landmark event in railroad, Western, and American history.

Gruber’s book is the first of two to come out on Beebe and Clegg in 2018. Tony Reevy’s “The Railroad Photography of Lucius Beebe & Charles Clegg” is due out later this year. I had a chance to review the proofs for it, and I liked it. I also like the Gruber-Ryan-Patrick volume on these two influential photographers who had so much to do with how we view this industry. They made a fine balance to bio with photography and railroad affinities.

Are two books one too many on Beebe & Clegg? I think not. There’s plenty of room at the table for exploration into their personal lives and the work they produced. The founding fathers of our interest are worth two delightful volumes, maybe more.

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