One of the first collections that I encountered during my travels through the photography collections of the Smithsonian was one in the Division of American engineering (now known as the Division of Work & Industry) at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. When I read Phil Patton’s piece in click! photography changes everything about photography of buildings and the places they lead you to, my mind’s eye immediately went to the Smithsonian’s collection of bridges, damns, and aqueducts that is made possible by collecting photographs of these structures. In particular, I remembered the photographs of structures engineered by Montogmery C. Meigs of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Aside from being in charge of several civil projects in and around Washington and serving as Quartermaster of the Union Army during the Civil War, Meigs developed into an avid photographer. He saw to it that his work on projects such as the Washington Aqueduct, the erection of the cast-iron dome on the Capitol, and the construction of the Pension Building was thoroughly photographed. As a result, Meigs left an unparalleled photographic account of what lies beyond the facades of a significant part of monumental Washington.
The Pension Building, constructed in the 1880s and which today houses the National Building Museum, was Meigs’ last commission. His photographs, or the photographs he instructed to be made, document the process of construction, including close-ups of the distinct frieze of bas relief sculptures of calvery soldiers that march, like Greeks, around the top of the building. The Pension Building was initially intended to house the bureaucracy of aid to Civil War veterans. Meigs’ photographs of this building, made to house the paperwork of a horrible war’s aftermath, seem to recognize that in this piece of architecture there is both the anticipation of building and the inevitability of collapse. See more photographs pertaining to Montgomery C. Meigs.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
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