The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Zoom In, Zoom Out
In November 1938, Science News Letter published a story on Enrico Fermi winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, running a headshot of the professor. It's the kind of photo found in a passport—Fermi is looking forward with not much of a smile. The next question a historian would ask is did Science Service, the publisher, hire one of its photographers to take the photo, or acquire the portrait image from another source?
However, this image tells a different story, one related to the history of photojournalism and to the role that archival records can play. The Smithsonian Institution Archives houses a large portion of the Science Service "morgue file" (Science Service Records 1954-1968 and Science Service Records 1960-1965) As a syndicated science news publisher, Science Service did what most newspapers do (or at least did before the digital age): they kept a hard-copy vertical file of images, press releases, past articles, and other information on people and topics in the event that more stories might be developed on these subjects again. It was a large reuse and recycle source.
What the morgue file on “Fermi, Enrico” contains is a group photo, showing not only Fermi, but Iréne Joliot-Curie, Marie Curie, Frédéric Joliot, Niels Bohr, and others. Black crop lines box out Fermi's "headshot." The next photo in the file is the same image, further edited for publication. Ernst Stahel and Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton behind him are mostly wiped out, and Fermi looks a bit different, too. The shadow under his left eye is covered with paint and the misplaced hair on his forehead is brushed away (old school Photoshop).
Obviously, Fermi wasn't posing for his passport, but where was he, and what was this occasion at which such a who's who of 20th century physicists gathered? There is no caption on either of the copy prints and no indication of when or how Science Service acquired them. However, our resident historians at the Smithsonian recognized some of the other scientists in the picture and the likely context. So, now do a Google image search on "Enrico Fermi Marie Curie Iréne Joliot-Curie Niels Bohr" and some larger group photos show up.
Zoom in and there's Fermi; zoom out and he is suddenly in the larger context within the image as a participant in the 7th Solvay Conference in Physics held in 1933. The conference was entitled "Structure and Properties of Atomic Nuclei," and is considered an historical marker of the beginning of modern nuclear physics.
As of this posting, the Smithsonian Institution Archives has digitized 8,622 images from this one morgue file, with two more boxes to go. This digitization project is the work of eight interns over the course of three years. The identification and description of the uncaptioned photos offers a larger challenge than just the months and months in front of a scanner, and not all image IDs will be as "easy." But sometimes the fun is in the hunt.