Often we are most captivated by those photographic images that defy the categories of history or style we might have first laid out for them. This is especially true of those images from the first years of the medium when new photographic media took America by storm. Striking images, our attraction to them is often a result of not knowing the reasons why they were made. They seem to be pieces of a visual puzzle that we have only begun to research and think about. Often they are images from the deeper parts of the archive. Not coincidently, these images also demonstrate photography as the clever invention of a prosperous industrial age that included railroads and steamships, newspaper printing presses, the telegraph, and the growing middle class. Since then, a camera always seems to be present to record the progress of the nation, the successes and failures of its people, and the rapidly growing culture of visual information. American photography began as an art woven from commonplace prosperity and created an inventory of everyday experience. Serving a new middle-class audience, photographers pictured what was near at hand and important as fact: the new baby, the newest house, the tallest waterfall. Or they pictured what someone paid them to picture, like the Stadler Photographing Company’s photographic advertisement for Babies Lawn Caps or the Williams Studio’s image of a collection of a group of chairs sitting out in a snowy street in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Today we might read the images in all sorts of ways, from surreal picture to an illustration for democratization of fashion and design in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History writes for click! about an album of school class pictures made by George Warren: “Here, history is made personal and poignant and revealed to be complex.” The recent coming of age of research in the history of American photography joins a more general cultural discussion. The unsystematic, if not quirky, way in which nineteenth-century photographs have survived or passed into institutions like the Smithsonian for study means that many images have been removed from the context of their original presentations. And even if we do the work to put them back in context, the suggestion that our image of the world is made up of images requires some further thought. As image collections are accessed by curators and archivists, with or without aid from digital replication, the information grows richer and the images that at first seemed to tell us one history have more to offer.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.