The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
There is a remarkable figure in the Smithsonian’s history that doesn’t get much of the spotlight; Thomas W. Smillie. He served as the Smithsonian’s first official photographer from 1870 until his death in 1917, and additionally became the Smithsonian’s first photography curator in 1896. Smillie amassed a collection of photographic equipment starting with the purchase of the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse for $23. He documented the Smithsonian’s collections and activities ranging from art to history to science. He was a skilled experimenter, and a successful one at that. In the spring of 1900, Smillie accompanied a team of scientists to document a solar eclipse in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The goal was to document the solar corona, so he mounted cameras to several telescopes and successfully took eight stunning glass plate negatives.
In a series of cyanotypes, he documented the Smithsonian’s collections, many still in the collection today (see slideshow below). Currently, Smillie's work is in the Cold Vault at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Today, we are still documenting the incredible collection that Smillie created.
- The Smithsonian’s First Photographer, The Bigger Picture
- Smillie and the 1900 Solar Eclipse, The Bigger Picture