Elliott Erwitt: Steam Train Press

22nd September 2023
Elliott Erwitt, 'Steam Train Press, Wyoming, USA, 1954'

Elliott Erwitt’s first major commission after he signed with Magnum Photos came in 1954. The piece was a photo-essay on the lives of children around the world for ‘Holiday’ magazine, which saw him travel to Wyoming. It was here, separately from the commissioned work he had travelled to undertake, that Erwitt made one of his most celebrated images.

‘Steam Train Press, Wyoming’ was taken while driving along a highway, and is a key image from Erwitt’s early period. The image captures the spectacular landscape of Wyoming through his car’s rear view window. It is a superb example of his ability to notice and capture an extraordinary image in an everyday scene.

Elliott Erwitt, 'Steam Train Press, Wyoming, 1954'

Stylistically the photograph is typical of the striking, cinematic compositions that characterised his work at that time. The mountain ridge along the horizon provides a dramatic backdrop to the action that plays out in the foreground. Erwitt reveals his sense of compositional timing as well as his technical abilities, as he captures the precise moment when a steam train and a car, both moving at speed, are travelling parallel to each other. The unconventional point of view sees the interior of the car encroach into the scene, adding an extra layer of framing to the photograph. Erwitt’s presence is acknowledged by this inclusion, anticipating the movement towards a more immediate and ‘snapshot’ approach to documentary photography in the 1960s and 1970s, by the likes of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.

In addition to its innovative and cinematic composition, ‘Steam train Press’ also encapsulates America at the height of its strength as the world super-power, referencing cars, trains, gasoline and the open road. Both the car and the steam train evoke the quintessentially American spirit of wanderlust, and the open road is the definitive metaphor for wandering and freedom. With both a feeling of nostalgia and excitement, Erwitt immortalises a moment during the last days of the steam railway in America, and contrasts it to the beginnings of America’s love affair with the automobile, and its subsequent transition into an American icon.

A passing moment in a passing era, ‘Steam Train Press’ remains a dramatic, romantic and epic description of American spirit, and the freedom of the open road.

FeaturedElliott Erwitt

Portrait of Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt SOL LDN

The ArtistKnown for his satirical humour and sharp wit, Elliott Erwitt (born 1928) rose to fame after he was invited to join Magnum Photos by founding member Robert Capa in the 1950s. He has since become one of the world’s most successful and influential photographers, having produced over twenty retrospective photography books and been honoured by numerous solo shows at establishments such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Elliott Erwitt Artist Page


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