The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Seen From the Edge
At the Photography Initiative, where we explore photography as a force of culture, we’ve been fascinated by the many ways photographs are used to depict the force of nature. We’ve published stories about photography and weather, the environment, and the landscape. And we’ve always wanted to pay homage to one of the most recognizable and photographed sites in America, Niagara Falls. A visit to The Falls is an awesome experience; you simultaneously feel awed and overwhelmed. You stand there, always off to the side, looking, staring, and marveling, trying to make sense out of something that’s sublime, gorgeous, dangerous. No wonder The Falls became a popular destination for honeymooners, daredevils, and people determined to kill themselves. And, more to our point, no wonder Niagara Falls has been photographed so often. It’s been featured on countless postcards, which prompted artist Zoe Leonard to do an installation of thousands of them, which she purchased at flea markets and online, at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York in 2008. A fabulous and melodramatic movie trailer for the 1953 movie Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe, sells itself as the story of two of the most electrifying sights in the world. Do a Flickr search for “Niagara” and you’ll come up with over half-a-million images. To hear what draws all those picture-makers, listen to Magnum photographer Alex Soth, as he describes what drew him to the edge, too.
In doing some research on Niagara and photography, we saw that our colleague Anthony Bannon—director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography—was already out there ahead of us, having written The Taking of Niagara: A History of the Falls in Photography, back in 1982. So, we contacted Tony immediately and for click!, and he’s written about Platt D. Babbitt, one of the first photographers to recognize and profit from the public’s fascination with the both the place and their relationship to it. To read his story, a watery tale rich in irony, click here.