The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Interns and staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives are digitizing historic photographs of the National Museum of Natural History building in preparation of its 100th birthday on March 17, 2010. My siblings and I spent weekend mornings with our dad at The Montgomery County Farm Women’s Cooperative Market in Bethesda, Maryland, bringing home paper bags full of more produce than we knew what to do with (to our mother’s exasperation). I still like a good farmers’ market, in theory and in practice; I know many others share a similar fondness. Digitizing images from the construction and opening of the National Museum of Natural History Building taken in the first decade of the 20th century, I encountered some striking photographs set outside D.C.’s historic Center Market. These images were totally foreign to me; I’d never heard of Center Market and didn’t know much about Washington’s early markets and vendors, so I did a little research. These early 20th century photographs from outside Center Market present the vendors’ everyday setting: cobblestone streets, warehouses, storefronts, horses and wagons. These unremarkable scenes offer hints of what people in D.C. were wearing, seeing, and peddling during the time of the Museum’s construction.
The market vendors appear in stark contrast to the imposing edifice in the background. It’s easy to identify with the National Museum of Natural History Building; the scenes captured around it feel distinctly of another time. A 1909 photograph featuring a food vendor just outside the Museum may be my favorite. If you look closely you can see her sign says “Hot Sausage: 3ct.” Now it costs more, but 100 years later there’s likely a hot dog vendor outside the National Museum of Natural History Building pushing the same product. A little history: Center Market stretched from 7th and 9th Streets between Constitution Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW for more than a century before it was razed for construction of the National Archives in 1931. Though the Market building was constructed in 1871, “the square operated as a marketplace from 1801.” Center Market was designed by Adolf Cluss, a distinguished Washington architect whom also designed the Smithsonian Castle and the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries building. D.C.’s celebrated Eastern Market, too, was designed by Cluss and constructed in 1873. Indeed, there were several markets in Washington by the late 19th century: 1892’s Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. spoke of eight markets in the District. All of them were publicly owned, save for Center Market, which was, the book elaborates, “The largest and one of the finest in the country . . .This market house took the place of one that had for years been an eyesore to the residents of the city. It was erected by a private company, chartered by Congress for the purpose.” Eastern Market was expanded in 1908 and was “unofficially recognized as the ‘town center’ of Capitol Hill.” Eastern Market is still operational and recently reopened in June 2009 after terrible fire damage in April 2007. Look for The National Museum of Natural History’s “Snapshots of 100 Years at the National Museum of Natural History.”
Emma Wolman is the Institutional History Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Fascinating interview with poet Robert Roper, who dug into the National Archives to examine the moving letters poet Walt Whitman wrote to family and friends recounting the ravages of the Civil War, and his experience as a nurse to wounded soldiers.
- All 3,300 hours of Johnny Carson are nearly digitized. [via Los Angeles Times]
- Just like McDonald’s: the food portions in Last Supper depictions have grown over the years, apparently.
- Visiting the American Museum of Natural History anytime soon? Check out their new iPhone and iPad apps.
- Queen's Brian May is still rocking you with his recent project examining a collection of 150 year old stereographic photographs of an English village. It's striking to hear the same man who wrote the lyrics for "We Will Rock you" give a scholarly discourse. [via HuffingtonPost].
- 6500 images of Pacific Islands people and places have been added to University of California, San Diego’s digital collections, a sampling of which are here [via Material World].
- The indicommons folks explore the brilliant-hued beauty of Kodachromes on the Flickr Commons:
At some point, everyday, I scan the Internet for stories about photography’s role and impact in culture. It turns out that in addition to all the images that are out there to be seen, there are surprising numbers of reports circulating about the power of those photographs, for those who are looking. Certain narrative threads pop up repeatedly. Someone is always noting and/or complaining about the spread of surveillance cameras. (A recent article, for example describes how there’s 1 surveillance camera for every 14 people in Britain, while in China, while the ratio’s higher for the moment, 1 for every 472,000 people, but many more cameras are being outfitted with facial recognition software.) And then, there are stories about photography that while predictable, are still kind of shocking, like the recent report about a nurse’s aide in Plattsburgh, New York, charged with taking explicit cell phone photographs of a patient suffering from a traumatic brain injury and sending them to a colleague.
Another persistent theme, the payoff that results from careful photographic analysis, is illustrated by two interesting stories I recently came across. The first describes the Army’s use of "Where’s Waldo?" photographic imagery in training games designed to teach troops bomb-spotting skills. The second trumpets the discovery—by Italian archeologists studying some contemporary commercial aerial views—of the lost city of Altinum whose residents fled from Attila the Hun in 452AD, and left behind a ghost town of theatres, temples, and basilicas, on their way to settle a new city, Venice.
In doing some early research for click! photography changes everything, I was astounded to read that—according to Steve Hoffenberg, of Lyra Research in Newtonville, Mass—over a billion photographs are made each day. But once I wrapped my mind around that stunning fact, what’s become even more fascinating to me is paying closer attention to what it is we all seem to be looking for.
Let me know what you’re seeing and thinking about.
One of the things I love about working at the Smithsonian is spending my days typing keywords into our search engines and seeing what kind of images will pop up. In my recent travel-themed photo browsing, I came across this photo of Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. Blowing up the original photo allowed me to read the inset yellow caption box on the photo:
“Women, as well as men, should look upon traveling by air as upon any other mode of transportation," Eleanor Roosevelt from her popular column, My Day, courtesy United Feature Syndicate.
A bit of sleuth work helped me discover that this photo was originally taken by Eleanor Roosevelt’s son, John, and that Mrs. Roosevelt allowed it to be used in a national magazine advertisement by the Air Transport Association that promoted flying among women.
We have to remember that at this time, flying on an airplane was not only considered an adventure, it was considered by many to be extremely dangerous (a Journal of Marketing article complained that many wives “[wouldn’t] let their husbands fly”). Convincing the public that men, let alone women (!) should travel by plane was a serious struggle.
Eleanor Roosevelt was an exception. Travel, especially plane travel, was a huge part of her career, and eventually helped establish her as a journalist and important world figure. Because FDR’s polio limited his ability to travel extensively, Eleanor became his fact-finder and his public presence. Following his inauguration in 1933, appearances on behalf of the administration took her abroad and to almost every state in the country. She was the first president’s wife to travel by plane (and without her husband), and the first First Lady to write a newspaper column. In fact, her My Day column often extolled the virtues of air travel, convincing readers in a casual, no-nonsense tone that airplanes were safe time-savers. The public had never encountered a First Lady like Roosevelt, and though she caught some grief from the press for her constant travel and her vocal presence, there was great public admiration for her. In a time when apart from movie stars women had no visible presence in the mass media, Eleanor Roosevelt served as a role model—a woman who made it okay for women to publicly participate in what had typically been a man’s world.
Interestingly, the only other photo advertisement or air travel we have from the same time period pictures a stewardess extolling the virtues of Ivory Soap Flakes in keeping her stockings as good as new. While it must have been courageous and atypical for a woman in the late 1930s to be working as a stewardess, the advertisement focuses on her role in “serving meals, making up berths, and taking care of children” rather than taking an active role in traveling or seeing the world. Mrs. Roosevelt’s photo, as tame as it may seem, is a remarkable counterpoint, and an appeal for the independent woman to take to the air!
In a pre-email, texting, facebook, Twitter, kind of world, before long-distance telephoning, when radio, film and television were infant means of communicating, the short, informal messages of postcards flourished. And the most creative messages of all were often conveyed with both pictures and words in the form of picture postcards.
In the years following Eastman Kodak’s 1900 introduction of the Brownie camera, which was initially marketed to children but quickly became a popular accessory for almost any middleclass family member, informal snapshots became the currency of popular photographic expression. And as the popularity of photography grew, so did the desire to send photographs and receive them. In 1903 Kodak introduced the No. 3A Folding Camera that used postcard-size film and allowed the general public to take photos and have them printed on postcard backs. Photo-lithography enabled the larger business of mass produced postcards to follow. Entrepreneurial photographers traveled the globe to record tourist spots, news events, important people, natural wonders and nature’s disasters, and turned the results over to printing companies that produced thousands of images every year.
Beyond their most familiar use as illustrated travel mementoes, picture postcards documented all manner of things for all kinds of reasons. Realtors used postcard photographs of important buildings and city sites to sell new housing by writing descriptions and prices on the back. Postcard images of particular places and people became expressions of pride in home and community, and were sold as souvenirs in local drug stores and stationery shops. Postcards of scenes in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia made by and for a Western audience in Europe and America also enjoyed a great popularity, especially before World War I. In the United States at the end of the mid-nineteenth-century, photographer William Henry Jackson, an experienced western US survey photographer, formed the Detroit Publishing Company. Postcards, sometimes in boxed sets, comprised most of the seven million images issued by the company in an average year. Images of American farms, factories, cities, natural wonders, and those ubiquitous favorites, cowboys and Indians, were marketed worldwide to schools, libraries, and governments, as well as to individuals.
Postcards formed a kind of floating image library. The United States Post Office reported that from June 1907 to June 1908 more than 667 million postcards, many of them picture postcards, were sent. Mailed and collected, they functioned as illustrated magazines. Photographic postcards, and the images they carry, represent a diverse range of impulses and intentions. At the Smithsonian some support collections of exploration and experiment, others serve collections of natural science, and some are illustrations of a unique personal view. The message has changed over time and we know that “wish you were here” is a complicated thought. But, by card or “tweet,” we wish the connection or lessons of memory all the same. View more postcards from the Smithsonian's collections.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.