The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I am running my fingers over a crayon rubbing of the fossilized body parts of a small creature—a trilobite —that I made this summer at the Walcott Quarry (also known as the Burgess Shale Quarry) in British Columbia, Canada. Trilobites make me think of roly-poly bugs, and as they belong to the same phylum Arthropoda, I’m not wrong to think that they are similar. This trilobite skeleton is over 500 million years old (trilobites became extinct sometime during the Devonian period 250 million years ago), but I can find a live roly-poly under a rock in my front garden when I go home tonight. I am thinking about the hike that got me to the trilobite and the thrill of walking in the footsteps of the 4th Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927). He was an expert on trilobites, and discovered the fossil quarry in British Columbia between Wapta Mountain and Mount Field in 1909. Walcott was also a photographer. I used his documentary evidence made 100 years ago for my journey. When I joined the Smithsonian Archives, one of my colleagues showed me the boxes of Walcott’s photographs—many of them rolled panoramas that we didn’t want to unroll in case they would be damaged in the process—most of them long forgotten. Glancing through other boxes of photographs and reviewing Walcott’s photo logbook it became clear that Walcott was passionate about getting good images, improving his images, and using them to advance science. For at least 35 summer field seasons Walcott would pack several cameras and the associated equipment and supplies and bring them with him. In addition to hundreds of photographs of the Canadian Rockies, there are pictures from Wyoming, Montana, and Arizona. He kept meticulous notes on the localities of the images; his captions are precise and observant. When the panoramas were unrolled, what views we found! Clouds, sky, snow, mountain peaks, talus, tree line, forest, streams, rivers, valleys, and sometimes packhorses and people and railroad tracks. I wanted to go! The panoramas were sometimes 4 or 5 or 6 feet long and beautiful. They mercifully took to gentle cleaning and relaxing so that they could be stored flat in special housing. So, I went myself to see what Walcott had seen, and brought photocopies of his pictures with me. I didn’t have a pack horse, glass plate negatives, a cumbersome view camera with bellows and tripod. I had a small digital pocket camera that shows me the picture immediately on a large LCD screen and adjusts the white balance and filters the ultra-violet light.
For all the talk about creative seeing and the art of photography, the technical parameters of picture-taking and making have, for the most part, been defined by manufacturers of camera and photographic supplies. That wasn’t always the case; in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, scientists and motivated amateurs tinkered away, developing the optics and chemistry that made the early and various forms of “handmade” photography possible. Once large corporations like Kodak began to dominate the market after the 1880s, however, the artisanal quality of photo-based images gave way to more standardized photographic thinking and products. And the truth is that most consumers have been grateful and happy to take the path of least resistance, purchasing the cameras, films and print-out options most readily available to them.
But now—with digital technology rapidly and radically changing our relationship to photography—we are increasingly encouraged and enabled to exert greater control over the images we need and make. And what may prove to be the 21st century’s first photographic tipping point has just appeared on the horizon. Researchers at Stanford University announced that they are introducing opening sourcing for photographic technology. Instead of being forced to live and work with the propriety photographic technology that’s doled out to us, we will soon be free to create innovative digital applications for cameras and picture making, just as people already been devising thousands of new apps for iPhones and other personal digital devices.
Given our growing visual sophistication and interest in controlling how, when, and where we’re represented photographically, things are bound to get interesting as unprecedented photographic options develop. Purists who fear we’re in too much of a rush to jump over the fence that’s defined photographic “truth” are only going to get more nervous. What some people are promising will be Photography 2.0, others are already demonizing as rise of the “Frankencamera.”
What can, or do we really want photographs to look like? It looks like we’re going to find out, soon.
The recent Labor Day holiday was an excuse to browse through our collections, and not surprisingly, the Smithsonian’s photography collections gives a nice overview of how photography has changed the way we work.
Few are unfamiliar with the moving photos of immigrants and child laborers taken by sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine, which served as powerful political tools during Hine’s time (view a selection from the Archives of American Art). Hine began his career in New York City taking photographs of immigrants and the tenements and sweatshops where they were forced to live and work. Later, he traveled around the country for the National Child Labor Committee to document the horrific work conditions of child laborers. Lewis aimed to show the “sweat and service” behind the goods that Americans consumed, but also the humanity and strength of immigrants who were arriving to the US in great numbers in the early 20th century and facing difficult circumstances and widespread xenophobia. Hine combined his photographs with descriptive captions in a form he called the “photo-story,” a precursor to the now ubiquitous photo-essay which was very successful at championing his political causes. All of Hine’s photos helped shift public opinion during a time when immigration was a “great social problem,” and his images of child workers eventually helped shock the public into action and persuade the federal government to institute child labor laws.
Around the same time, photography was being used not only to change the conditions in which laborers worked, but also the way they worked. During a period of intense industrialization, unionization, and rising labor costs, capitalists were looking for ways to cut cost. Many turned to the new-fangled technology of motion studies to try and analyze how to make their workers more efficient. At the forefront of this technology were management consultant Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian, an industrial psychologist. These two used a clock, blinking lights attached to a subject’s moving hands, a grid backdrop, and cameras to presumably analyze the fastest and most efficient way to complete a task. Using the “indisputable evidence” of the photograph, the Gilbreths promised to standardize the repetitive motions of workers on production lines. Not surprisingly, many workers didn’t take well to being reduced to an efficient function, and in some cases, refused to work if their employers subjected them to the Gilbreth motion studies. Nevertheless, the Gilbreths truly believed in their methodology (and famously used it in their own household of twelve children!), and their work became the precursor to today’s ergonomic planning and design.
And of course, photography used in advertising has changed what kinds of products we consume, how these products are made, and what we think of companies and the people they employ. Check out our popular Postal Service photos from the National Postal Museum on the Flickr Commons, or the N. W. Ayer Advertising Agency Records from the National Museum of American History to explore PR, advertising, and employment in our collections.
While video now rules the workplace, mainly in a surveillance function, the photos here leave us with a visual record of the workplace that is much more compelling than hours of security footage.
In the 1960s, during the process of planning a kitchen remodel at its headquarters in New York City, the Garden Club of America (GCA) found thousands of glass lantern slides featuring early 20th-century American gardens in an old closet. The precursor to photographic slides, glass lantern slides allowed photographs to be projected onto a surface for an audience to view, and the GCA originally used these slides to give lectures on gardening and horticulture. Fortunately, instead of throwing these slides away (as was originally suggested), in 1992 the GCA donated the 3,000 lantern slides, as well as 37,000 35mm slides, that document the history of American gardens and landscapes to the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens.
I first came across these photos as I was browsing through the collections on our site. Not surprisingly, what struck me was the beauty of the gardens, but also the charming and intricate hand-painted coloring on many of these slides, most of which were produced in the early 1920s and 30s. I also thought of my mother, who’s an avid gardener, and how the photos would be amazing inspiration for new garden layouts and color combos. But what became clear as I scanned the images is that many of the gardens and homes featured in the slides had been demolished.
The Garden Club of America was founded in 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and conservation, as well as sharing a love and knowledge of gardening, was a part of its original mission. The GCA glass slides now housed at the Smithsonian have been a crucial part of that conservation effort and now provide some of the only clues we have to the original designs and garden techniques in practice early in the century in America (albeit, mainly on expansive upper-class estates). Interestingly, photography also was a big part of the GCA’s efforts to conserve wild flowers and discourage billboards (which many club members considered “visual pollution”). Club members used photographs of billboards and lantern slides of wild flowers as “propaganda” (apparently not a dirty word to them. . .) to influence both public opinion and legislation.
Of course, the GCA was not the first organization to use photography as a means to an end for preservation and environmental concerns. As early as 1857, English photographer James Mudd used photographs to illustrate the effects of a chemical works factory on local flora—this instance being one of the earliest uses of photography to support a case in court! And among more well-known examples of “environmental photography,” William Henry Jackson and Ansel Adams famously used photographs to persuade the US Congress to create National Parks in the American West in the 1870s and 1930s.
In spite of their more humble beginnings, the GCA slides are a great example of how photographs can both incite and aid preservation efforts, and are providing me with some serious inspiration for fall plantings for my patio!
See a sampling of the Archives of American Gardens' slides here.
This Monday, as we observe Labor Day in the midst of a serious economic recession, we can draw inspiration from the countless number of artists who unified and persevered during the Great Depression. Beginning in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects provided work relief for artists, employing them as muralists, sculptors, art educators, and researchers. At this momentous time, artists received commissions from federally-funded art projects and started spirited unions and organizations. The Smithsonian Archives of American Art has in its collections thousands of photographs taken during the New Deal era, as well as an extensive oral history program that preserves the unique voices and passionate stories of these artists. Paired below are photographs and interview highlights, offering a virtual behind-the-scenes glimpse into how artists lived in hard times.
Marion Greenwood (1909–1970), mural painter In Greenwood’s oral history interview, she discusses her decision to leave Mexico to work on an American mural project. This photograph was taken for the WPA’s Federal Art Project Photograph Division. This unit employed photographers who documented the progress of WPA commissions. Lee Krasner (1908–1984), painter Krasner describes in her interview working as an assistant for other WPA painters while hoping to begin a mural of her own. This photograph, taken while Krasner was employed by the WPA, suggests that Krasner had some flexibility to pursue abstract painting on her own, even if her official duties were to assist other artists.
Dora Kaminsky, (1909–1977), printmaker Kaminsky expresses her frustrations with the WPA’s bureaucratic process in her interview. Despite Kaminsky’s protest that the poster division was secondary to the easel division, printmakers, shown at work in this photograph, learned a great deal of technical skills and produced thousands of posters for the U.S. government.
Eugenie Gershoy (1901–1983), sculptor Gershoy tells in her oral history interview a lively story of her arrest at a group sit-down strike. Artists young and old unionized to prevent the WPA from unfairly cutting wages. They participated in strikes, marches and rallies. The rally shown in this photograph was organized by the Artists’ Union, an organization founded during the Depression. These photographs and oral histories are part of the Archives exhibition, Hard Times, 1929-1939, on view in Washington, D.C. at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery inside the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, August 10 to November 8, 2009.
Mary Savig of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art