Vernacular photography is the latest type of photography to be discovered by museums. Postcards, collected by Walker Evans (but still, postcards), have just been exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a tintype exhibition just closed at the International Center of Photography in New York, another exhibit of snapshots was seen at the National Gallery of Art. In fact, a spate of recent exhibitions, publications, and conferences argues that everyday photographs, taken by people presumably innocent of aesthetic intentions, but busy doing the business of other disciplines, or pre-occupied with making a record of their personal lives, have become worthy of our attention. Why? Have we run out of masterpieces by known artists? Or have we begun to dig deeper into the archives that have silted up since photography’s invention and in so doing have we begun to unearth a larger, fuller history of photography than has been written to date? In addition to being the Smithsonian’s first staff photographer, Thomas Smillie was also the institution’s first photography curator. Interestingly, in 1896 when a formal Section of Photography was established Smillie was titled "Custodian" and the first objects he collected—for the sum of $23 he bought the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse, one of the first Americans to experiment with photography—were called "specimens." Smillie’s activity as photographer and curator matched the interests and expansion of the Smithsonian itself. By the late 1880s Smillie’s list of photographs, either ones he made or made by others which he collected, included subjects from a growing array of disciplines: ethnological and archaeological, lithological, mineralogical, ornithological, metallurgical, and perhaps the most enticing category of all, miscellaneous. As Albert Moore, the man who sold Smillie Morse’s equipment, wrote, the Smithsonian seemed to be "making a museum of photography." For Smillie the history of photography was the sum of all its functions, from the most prosaic to the most aetheticized. In 1913 for the first exhibition of photography at the Smithsonian, which fittingly took place in the Arts and Industries building, Smillie arranged the photographs in a rough chronological order in displays that highlighted their value as documents of history, as portrayers of American life, as tools of science and technology, and as artistic images. Even so, nothing about the exhibition suggested that one function of photography was elevated above any other. At heart, Smillie’s view of photography presented a unified field in which art and function are inseparable. Photography’s scientific, commercial, and vernacular functions were all part of a single conversation about images. In today’s digital media age, it is a conversation, I suspect, that we will be having more often.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.