The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Politics/Government
I was visiting South Carolina recently, and passed through Beaufort. It turns out this beautiful southern town has a surprising connection to the Smithsonian.
In November 1861, when Union troops occupied Beaufort, one of the principal treasures of the town was its outstanding library - which had been incorporated in 1807 and encompassed several thousand books, many having been brought back from Europe by wealthy Carolinians. With the arrival of the troops, landed Beaufort-area residents had fled and the town was in the hands of those left behind: enslaved people from the Sea Islands plantations.
General Isaac Stevens, the Union commanding officer, ordered that the library, called "the pride of the town," be arranged for the use of the troops. Within a few months, however, a treasury agent appeared, demanding the books be confiscated as war booty. The books were sent to New York, where they were put up for auction.
This caused an immediate outcry. The New York Times editorialized against it; and a letter to the editor urged them to continue the fight (or as the writer wonderfully put it, "ventilate" the subject!). Within a day, Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, allegedly declared "the Union does not make war on books," and put a halt to the proceedings. The books were then deposited for safe keeping at the Smithsonian. They were to be returned at the conclusion of the war. (Salmon Chase became a Smithsonian Regent in 1864, after Lincoln successfully nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he continued in that role until his death in 1873.)
Saved from auction, the books were placed in the fifth floor of the South Tower of the Smithsonian Building (the Castle - then the Smithsonian's only building). The war dragged on; in 1864, two years after the seizure of the books, newspapers reassured the South that the library remained safe and sound.
Tragically, on January 24, 1865, fire ripped through the Castle building. The Beaufort Library collection was completely destroyed, along with many other collections and papers - including almost all of the relics of the Smithsonian's founder, James Smithson, which were being kept a few floors below in the Regents Room.
Beaufort eventually received some token compensation for their loss. Today the Beaufort County Library is a thriving place. Happily, the book collection lost in the 1865 fire wasn't the last connection between Beaufort and the Smithsonian. The library hosted a Smithsonian traveling exhibition in early 2012.
- Smokin' Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In honor of Presidents' Day, the Archives presents the following images. Please enjoy.
- Presidential materials at the Smithsonian Institution, Collections Search Center
- Presidential materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Presidents, White House
When people look back at this year’s inauguration ceremonies, they will remember an iconic image of that day. These images help us remember what happened, but also try to convey the mood and emotions that witnesses to the historical event feel. These images help tell our history. But what about the photographers behind the lens? How do they interpret the day and decide on what stories to tell?
Recently, I sat down with Smithsonian Institution Archives photographer Michael Barnes to find out. This year he will be photographing his fourth inauguration and has learned the best way to score the shot he wants.
Bellizzi: What inaugurals have you photographed?
Barnes: Both of President George W. Bush’s and President Obama’s first.
Bellizzi: What was your experience photographing your first inauguration?
Barnes: For the first [George W.] Bush Inauguration, I was stationed on 14th street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was cold and rainy, and I had to get there super early. I made the mistake of not taking my gear home, and had to try and get to the Smithsonian to get the equipment. This was a good lesson to learn; now I always have my gear the night before. The roads get blocked off and it is difficult to get where you need to go. You have to get there early. At this inauguration I missed the swearing-in, because I was stationed for the motorcade shot. At this Inauguration the Smithsonian had about seven or eight photographers at the event and we had official stations and you could not leave your spot for hours. So, you could only take images from that spot. I tried to capture the general feel of the day, but stood there for hours to get the few seconds of the President passing by. I was told by secret service to leave, but showed credentials so I was allowed to stay. But, standing on marble for a few hours, it gets really cold.
Bellizzi: What was your second inauguration like?
Barnes: For the second one I was able to float in the crowd. I was just looking for people shots. People shots show the different reactions to the event and the day. I like to try and capture the joy of the moment.
Bellizzi: What was the most recent inauguration experience like?
Barnes: For Obama’s Inauguration I was on the National Mall. I wanted to capture the [Smithsonian] buildings to record them as the historical witnesses to the event. The Smithsonian is connected to historical events. I worked with Ken Rahaim that day. He wanted to get on to the top of one of the buildings, but anything on top of buildings has to be cleared. So he worked with Smithsonian security and secret service to get all of the permissions cleared. One of the challenges of the Inauguration is dealing with secret service and security. Security teams were in the towers of the Castle, and Ken had the clearance, but at the last minute the security team would not let him go, so he had to figure out an alternative location. I decided to take photographs on the [National] Mall between the Castle and National Museum of Natural History.
We spent the night before at the National Museum of American History. I had learned from previous inaugurations to spend the night. So I went and took shots of the Mall that night.
On Inauguration day, people were very nice. They did not stand in the gravel so I could still get around. It was cold that day. I wanted to show the people photographs again. Show the story of mother and kids trying to stay warm. She had the kids wrapped up, but got them up for the actual swearing in. The expressions on people’s faces were great. I wanted to capture people during specific moments of the speeches and their reactions to it.
Bellizzi: Was the cold a challenge from a photographer’s point of view?
Barnes: Dealing with the cold, equipment can get changed. When you go from inside the building to the outside, things can fog up. You need to adapt the camera to the element. Even though it was cold, things were fine that day, because I kept moving and was well prepared with lots of layers.
Bellizzi: Are there any other challenges to photographing an inauguration?
Barnes: Getting to where you need to be for the shot. Too many people, too many check points. The challenge is to get to the shot that you want to capture in time. But I like the challenge of roaming around and I will do it again this year.
Bellizzi: Do you work with other photographers to capture the event?
Barnes: We work out beforehand who will cover what area. But we work independently during the event. Photographers have different viewpoints. We have a plan of certain ideas of the types of images that we want to get. We try to get those, but the event also presents the opportunities for the images.
Bellizzi: Why do you think it is important for the Smithsonian to have these types of events covered?
Barnes: Because it is right at your doorstep. The events tell history, and we are about history. Anything that happens near the buildings, these images tell the story of the buildings’ history and the events that help shape it. The buildings set the scene and witness the event. For example there are so many marches for different causes. Whether you agree or not, it is important to know what the story is and capture the event so that there is some type of record.