The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this is the second in a series of installments from Smithsonian Institution Archives staff highlighting women in science photographs. We will post portraits of women science here throughout the month. In a 1930s movie about hotshot newspaper reporters, you might hear the star (Jimmy Cagney, probably) yell to his wise-cracking sidekick (Joan Blondell) “Hey—check the morgue!” Joan doesn’t grab her coat and go running to the place where the medical examiner does autopsies. She goes running to the file cabinet. The morgue of a newspaper or magazine is its reference file, where clippings and photographs containing useful information are stored for future needs.* When the Science Service archives came to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, their morgue containing past articles, press releases and other materials produced by the Science Service was included. “Other materials” included many photographs. We’ve posted a selection of these dealing with women and science on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons. I was browsing through the portraits in the “Women and Science” collection, and two of the women who are posted this week caught my eye. I did a little research to find out more about them. Did you know that prior to 1964, the American Medical Association prohibited physicians from disseminating birth control information to their patients? Mary Steichen Calderone, Medical Director of Planned Parenthood, was instrumental in overturning that policy. I also was interested to find that Ms. Calderone was the daughter of Edward Steichen—and that her interest in medicine began when she lived with Dr. Leopold Stieglitz’s family while attending school. Dr. Stieglitz was the brother of Alfred Stieglitz. Child prodigies are so easily and undeservedly forgotten. When I found snippets of Nathalia Crane’s poetry on line, I was delighted to discover that her verses were a cross between Dorothy Parker and Emily Dickinson. Here’s a sample:
The Janitor’s Boy
Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy, And the janitor's boy loves me; He's going to hunt for a desert isle In our geography. He’ll carry me off; I know that he will, For his hair is exceedingly red; And the only thing that occurs to me Is to dutifully shiver in bed.
For more of Nathalia’s poetry see http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Nathalia_Crane. *Hotshot archivists yell, “Check the vertical file!”— but we mean pretty much the same thing. In an archival setting, the vertical file contains printed items, only. Unique items such as manuscripts and photographs are usually not placed in our vertical file
In June, 2008, the Smithsonian was the 4th institution to join the Flickr Commons . One of the things I enjoy most as a visitor to the Commons is searching on a random word or phrase and seeing how that idea is represented.
Six members of the Commons posted photos and tagged with ‘womensday’ in honor of the 2009 International Women's Day. I searched on ‘work’ and other related words and came up with this snapshot of women working across the world.
Try your own search across the Commons and share your favorite here.
In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this is the first in a series of installments from Smithsonian Institution Archives staff highlighting women in science photographs. We will post portraits of women science here throughout the month. Formidable (adj). Having qualities that discourage attack; tending to inspire awe or wonder. What a word! Sometimes, I come across a photo like the one on the left – it’s not a girlie, studio portrait; her gaze is steady and direct; her dress and hairstyle are rather daring; and, she exudes confidence and ease in her own skin – and I get all fired up to know more about her. “Who is she?” “What is her field?” “When and where was this portrait taken?” So I get to work and find out she’s Biologist Muriel A. Case (1901-1981) who studied at Boston University and was doing research in biology at Mt. Desert Isle laboratory when this photograph was taken in the 1920s.
Another woman who blows me away is Mary Agnes Chase (1869-1963),
Smithsonian’s Custodian in Charge of the Herbarium at the U.S. National Museum. She was not only an eminent expert on grasses but also a suffragette. In fact, her political activities resulted in arrests, prison time and a hunger strike that ended when she was force-fed. Later, when faced with formidable professional opposition to her request to go on expedition to Panama, she raised her own funds and traveled alone [shocking]. Throughout her career she was energetic and undaunted by political and professional chauvinism in pursuit of her passion for botany and at the age of 93 published a three volume index of U.S. grasses, over 80,000 species. The more I learn about the struggles faced by these pioneering women scientists the more I’m inclined to recall the word used above. Now you may have some sense of what I experience as I research women scientists represented in the Science Service morgue files – more on what these are in future installments.
As Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, I’m often asked what makes the Smithsonian photography collections interesting and unique. For me, the answer is less about size – although, the Smithsonian does have more than 13 million photographs of all types – than about function. Though there are hundreds of photography collections at the Smithsonian, unlike most other museums where photographs have long since been reassembled into a single collection called “the history of photography,” most photographs at the Smithsonian are still found within the subjects for which they were created. That is, photographs that document culture are found in anthropology collections… …photographs of man-made structures like bridges and damns are found in an engineering collection in the Division of Work and Industry… …photographs used to catalogue new species of fish are found in the Division of Fishes… …and art collections contain photographs intended to be seen as work of art. Gather photography specialists in a room and ask which is the most important photograph and it is likely you will collect as many different answers as experts: Is it the most beautiful photograph or the oldest or the rarest photograph? Is an image of a bridge, for example, selected because it is the most historically significant image of a bridge or the one that is in the most beautiful picture of a geometric shape in the landscape? Both are valid answers, of course. Context, we can say, is everything.
Today we have new tools for making, saving, and sharing photographs, and there are places like this blog to talk about how photographs, both historic ones and ones just made, work. In our critical age where photographic truth is not a given, but rather something constructed often according to institutional needs, we’ve got a real opportunity to talk about photography as a whole.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we invite you to submit your photo and story about how photography both shapes and reflects women’s lives and accomplishments. Starting on March 8th, International Women's Day, we will also be featuring photographs of women scientists on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons photostream. We hope that these photos of women scientists and our upcoming blog posts will bring to light stories of women that have been hidden from view. We encourage you to share your thoughts on these photos too!
"All photographs of women—including news pictures, advertisements, portraits and snapshots—embody and reveal complex social and cultural values to anyone who takes the time to look at them carefully enough."
From Marvin Heiferman, guest curator and creative consultant for the click! photography changes everything
How have the ways women are depicted in photographs changed over time? How does your photo celebrate, capture, or challenge what it means to be a woman? Does photography perpetuate stereotypes about women and their lives? How have photographs of women contributed to the Women’s Rights Movement worldwide?
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