Richard Steinheimer, dean of western railroad photographers, dies at 81

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Richard Steinheimer, the dean of western railroad photographers, died at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the home he shared with his wife and fellow photographer, Shirley Burman. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 81.
 
A quiet man, Steinheimer, usually hailing to just “Stein,” often let his photographic prowess speak for him. While a commercial photographer by profession, his never-ending passion was focusing on railroads and railroading. Starting with his first train photo in the 1940s, he continued on for almost a half-dozen decades to create with a style all his own.
 
When it came to railroading, Steinheimer always seemed to concentrate on being a railroad photographer first, a train photographer second, routinely putting the train in context with the world it lived in, blending atmosphere and character with the railroaders and the environment. His work helped elevate the world of railroad photography into the realm of art.
 
A Chicago native, Steinheimer’s family moved to Southern California when he was a child, and his passion for photographing trains intensified in his teenage years. He enrolled in City College of San Francisco principally for its photography curriculum. One of his professors was Joe Rosenthal, the photographer that won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing the flag-raising on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima during World War II. By the early 1950s, Stein, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, was back in Southern California, regularly embarking on trips around the West, either alone or with lifelong friends such as Don Sims, searching for the last of steam while not forgetting the early days of dieseldom and recording the life of everyday railroading wherever he traveled.
 
His work regularly appearing in railroad magazines, Steinheimer was in a photographic age when most camera equipment was still manufactured in the United States and lens length was measured in inches, not millimeters. His staple was cut-film 3¼ x 4¼ and 4x5-inch Speed Graphics, and later, 120 roll-film Swedish Hasselblads and German Rolleis. As the years went by, his inventory expanded to 35mm Nikons. But understanding Steinheimer’s photography meant understanding that the camera was, in reality, entirely in his mind, and the physical device he used, regardless of format or manufacturer, was used merely to capture it. He also published a number of railroad-themed books that today are considered classics.
 
Another Steinheimer hallmark was not being overly concerned about the weather when he was on a photographic safari. He blended rain, snow, wind, heat, and whatever else nature had in mind into the composition. He also believed in photographing what was there, rather than what he hoped would be there. If a quartet of Alco PA passenger diesels were unleashing torrents of black smoke into the air as they accelerated out of a station, he caught the action at its peak.
 
When not on assignment for a railroad magazine, he kept food on the table as a newspaper photographer. His attention to photographic detail eventually landed him a job at a Silicon Valley aerospace company, and his talent kept his photographic date book filled with freelance assignments. Those included jobs for the Southern Pacific, where some of his artistic photographs illustrated full-page magazine ads.
 
Over the decades, Steinheimer turned his eye to areas outside of the West in his unquenchable thirst for new photographic fodder. He captured Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 and E44 electrics, and made riveting portraits of Milwaukee Road electrics in the Pacific Northwest. Steinheimer documented Southern Pacific’s historic struggle to conquer Donner Pass in California.
 
In recent years, Burman, herself a professional photographer, worked tirelessly with friends and other photographers to identify, file, and categorize the enormous stack of negatives for which her husband didn’t always have time during his shoots to write complete caption information. Thanks to her, the latter-day collection that makes up Richard Steinheimer’s magnificent picture files are in good hands.

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