Does photography always report on the past? Recently, as part of the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, the Smithsonian took a closer look at a rare Lincoln object that possessed a secret message. When it was opened by curators, Lincoln’s gold pocket watch confirmed the story that had traveled with the object for generations: that Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker who repaired it in 1861, had secretly engraved a message on the inside of the case. The brass underside of the watch movement reads, "April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon. April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon." Hugh Talman, a Smithsonian photographer, documented the occasion, the watch, and the inscription. Now, both the watch and the images of the watch are part of Smithsonian collections. History creates history and requires a photograph. Almost from the beginning of the Smithsonian, photographers recorded the history of the institution in pictures. Thomas W. Smillie was the Smithsonian’s first photographer (see a sample of his work), and from 1869 until his death in 1917, Smillie and his staff photographed all manner of day to day museum activities. Like museum photographers today, he photographed exhibition installations and specimens collected by the Smithsonian; created reproductions for use as printed illustrations; documented important events, acted as a chemist for Smithsonian scientific researchers, traveled as photographer on Smithsonian sponsored scientific research trips.
This was, and is, photography at its most useful. Smillie used a large camera and glass plate negatives, and most of his photographs were printed quickly and cheaply as blueprint blue cyanotypes. Today, though few of his bulky negatives survive, his images are scattered around the Smithsonian, divided up according to subject: bird skeletons in Natural History, exhibition installations in American History, and images of all sorts of things in the Smithsonian Archives.
There, mysterious images of objects long retired to the vault have silted up into a kind of shadow institution: shards of pottery, Chinese kites, a Confederate Army coat, furniture, a fountain pen. I love that pen. Especially because it was made for the most practical of purposes: to document an item in the Smithsonian fountain pen collection. Looking back over the mass of images of the twentieth century, through the art historical credibility that surrealism gave photography, that disembodied hand holding that pen is transformative, a sign of things to come. The history of any photograph is a function of both why it was made and how and where it was saved. Walter Benjamin wrote that, "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably." In another hundred and fifty years we might think of opening up Lincoln’s watch again. How different will the secret of its photograph be?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.