Photography at the Smithsonian

As Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, I’m often asked what makes the Smithsonian photography collections interesting and unique. For me, the answer is less about size – although, the Smithsonian does have more than 13 million photographs of all types – than about function. Though there are hundreds of photography collections at the Smithsonian, unlike most other museums where photographs have long since been reassembled into a single collection called “the history of photography,” most photographs at the Smithsonian are still found within the subjects for which they were created. That is, photographs that document culture are found in anthropology collections…

Portrait of Two Men, Ainu from Saghelieu, Both in Costume, One with Earring, 1909
…photographs of man-made structures like bridges and damns are found in an engineering collection in the Division of Work and Industry
Construction on the River Seine, Pont Louis Philippe, Unidentified photographer, Smithsonian Nationa
…photographs used to catalogue new species of fish are found in the Division of Fishes
Pristigenys alta (Short Big Eye), by Sandra J. Raredon, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural Histo
…and art collections contain photographs intended to be seen as work of art.
Saint John, by Julia Margaret Cameron, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Cent
Gather photography specialists in a room and ask which is the most important photograph and it is likely you will collect as many different answers as experts: Is it the most beautiful photograph or the oldest or the rarest photograph? Is an image of a bridge, for example, selected because it is the most historically significant image of a bridge or the one that is in the most beautiful picture of a geometric shape in the landscape? Both are valid answers, of course. Context, we can say, is everything.

by Antoin Sevruguin, Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer Sackler A
View of Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument across Potomac River, Unidentified photographer, Sm
From Terminal Island, Looking East, from the Long Beach Documentary Survey Project, by Grant Mudford
Untitled, by Unidentified photographer, Smithsonian National Zoo
Chelsea (NY), by Unidentified photographer, Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens
View of Suspension Bridge Over River; City Buildings In Background, by M. Arias Rodriquez, Smithsoni

Today we have new tools for making, saving, and sharing photographs, and there are places like this blog to talk about how photographs, both historic ones and ones just made, work. In our critical age where photographic truth is not a given, but rather something constructed often according to institutional needs, we’ve got a real opportunity to talk about photography as a whole.

Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.

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