Some Further Thoughts About Photography And the Smithsonian

Architects Model of the Smithsonian Institution Castle, 1846, by Unidentified photographer, Daguerre In 2000, as an answer to the question, “does the Smithsonian have an important collection of photography, and if it does, what’s so important about it?” we launched the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. The idea was not to focus on how many images there were around the Mall—the continual proliferation of images makes counting photographs an impossible task in any case, and one that was already nobly being addressed in all corners of the Institution—but rather to contemplate the role photographs played at the Institution. Given the multi-disciplined collections of the Smithsonian, we thought in so doing, we might also get at the nature of photography itself. And given the growing role that digital technologies played in giving institutions like the Smithsonian unprecedented opportunities to access vast collections, the powerful meaning of images—how they got here and how they function—seemed an important thing to know. Too, photography itself seemed at a crossroads: how it is made, how it is shared, how it has changed, and is changed by the people who make images and use images. It also was important to embrace new platforms for exhibiting and publishing images. So, www.photography.si.edu was created. Part online exhibition space, part online publishing house, part online forum, SPI’s website, with projects like click! photography changes everything and THE BIGGER PICTURE blog, was an experiment in sharing images and ideas. In one of the first blog posts I submitted to THE BIGGER PICTURE, I wrote that photographs give us a reason to tell stories. Sometimes the stories are about the subject of the photograph, sometimes about the photographer, or what was going on when the photograph was taken. Sometimes the photograph reminds one of another photograph and another moment. Untitled, c. 1890, by Thomas Smillie, Cyanotype, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Thomas Smillie Co Now, ten years after the Photography Initiative began, it has become a part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It is a fitting home, as one of the richest places to mine the many stories of photography at the Smithsonian, and the history of the Institution itself. The Initiative that began as an experiment has now proved successful as a model for innovative, pan-institutional, online collaborations. When I began my career at the Smithsonian, I and the Institution had only the most rudimentary awareness of the importance of photographs to its mission, and the notion that images could be shared across something called the Internet was not even a dream. Today the riches of the Smithsonian’s collections of photographs are widely recognized, all of our museums display photographs on a regular basis, and efforts to digitize and make available these images online are gaining ever more momentum. Over the next decade, as thousands more images and the information that supports them are made available online, the digital Smithsonian will continue to tell stories using images. We can only imagine! This is my last blog post for THE BIGGER PICTURE. I leave the Smithsonian after nearly thirty years at the end of this month.

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

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