John Gruber, rail photographer extraordinaire, dies at 82

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John Gruber
MADISON, Wis. — In the world of railroad photography, few practitioners have had an impact as profound as that of John Gruber. He arrived in the 1960s with a daring new approach to photographing the railroad scene, then went on to found the leading organization devoted to preserving and promoting the art form.

Gruber died Oct. 9, 2018, at a hospital in Madison after a brief illness. He was 82.

Born in Chicago in 1936, Gruber spent most of his life in Wisconsin, moving with his family early in childhood to Prairie du Sac, a small town on the Wisconsin River not far from Madison. Some of his earliest encounters with trains came there, courtesy of the Milwaukee Road trains that ran through town on a branch line serving the sprawling Badger Ordnance Works nearby.

There were other early influences as well, including family trips to ride the White Pass & Yukon in Skagway, Alaska, and the Rio Grande’s San Juan passenger train out of Alamosa, Colo. The Colorado narrow gauge made a strong impression on young Gruber, and he returned later in life to make some of his most significant photographs.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin railroads continued to attract him as he gradually expanded his photographic skills. The state’s most prominent carriers, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and Chicago & North Western, were favorite targets, of course, but also such exotic attractions as Green Bay & Western and the North Shore Line.

A North Shore trip led to Gruber’s first photograph published in Trains, an image of shivering railfans shooting an excursion on the interurban line at Northbrook, Ill., in February 1960.

That first photo in Trains sparked a long and fruitful relationship with longtime Editor David P. Morgan, who became a big fan of Gruber’s approach, especially his pioneering use of both telephoto lenses and his talent for getting up close and personal with professional railroaders.

Morgan went on to feature Gruber’s photographs in numerous cover stories, including coverage of the demise of the North Shore in the January 1963 issue, a photo essay about Chicago Union Station in August 1965, and a valedictory for the Denver & Rio Grande Western in a celebrated all-narrow-gauge issue in October 1969.

Gruber and Morgan traveled together frequently, perhaps most memorably during the August 1966 inaugural rips of Southern 2-8-2 No. 4501. Two years later, Gruber’s photos were the backbone of Morgan’s book Locomotive 4501. The editor wrote that Gruber was always “on top of the action, however unexpected and regardless of the hour. His pictures tell it like it was.”

Although Gruber followed the work of the early stars of railroad photography — especially his friend Philip R. Hastings, but also Jim Shaughnessy and William D. Middleton — his primary influence was the work of two favorite newspaper photographers, Dick Sroda of the Wisconsin State Journal and Jim Stanfield of the Milwaukee Journal. News photography inspired Gruber to go beyond what he was seeing in Trains.

“It was a time when press photographers and journalists were interested in what people were doing,” Gruber said. “I saw this as an underrepresented area of railroad photography, and I took advantage of every opportunity to document railroad people at work, rather than concentrating on equipment.”

Gruber even considered a career in newspapers, applying at one point for a reporter’s job at the Milwaukee Journal, but later finding a position in publications and public relations at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. He remained with the university’s publications staff for 35 years.

Always restless and ready to do more work, Gruber for years went beyond his day job by editing the Gazette of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, where he was an active member for many years. During Gruber’s tenure, the publication was known for the depth of its articles and the elegance of its design.

He later parlayed his Gazette experience into his editorship of Vintage Rails, a quarterly, and later bimonthly, magazine about railroad history and culture, launched in 1995 by Pentrex. The richly illustrated magazine found an intensely loyal readership but was inexplicably shut down by Pentrex just four years later.

Disappointed but unbowed, Gruber turned more of his energy toward what is likely his greatest accomplishment, his 1997 founding of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, based in Madison and today a thriving organization known for its growing archives, its publications and exhibits, and its popular “Conversations” symposium held annually in April at Lake Forest College near Chicago.

Gruber’s founding of the Center grew, in part, out of his strong sense of community. “I had become curious about railroad photographers — who they were, their backgrounds, their ideas about photography,” Gruber explained. He continued to serve on the Center’s board the rest of his life.

Gruber authored or co-authored a number of books, including Travel by Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950, with Michael Zega (Indiana University Press, 2002); Classic Steam (Fall River Press, 2009); and Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography (CRPA, 2015). In 1994, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society recognized Gruber’s contributions with its Senior Achievement Award.

Gruber is survived by his wife, Bonnie, two sons, Richard and Timothy, and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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