The Photographic History Collection (PHC) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) is the first collection of photography at any U.S. museum. There are about 200,000 images representing the work of over 4,000 photographers and 12,000 pieces of equipment and photographic apparatus. The PHC collects images and objects representing the art, science, and technology of photography. As such, the collection is very broad. In addition to fine-art photographs, the collection includes mutoscope broadsides, stereographs, snapshots and albums, 3D photography, tintypes, daguerreotypes, and space photography. The apparatus collection includes patent models; entire studios; aerial, panorama, and underwater cameras; still projectors (magic lantern and 35mm slides); early motion-picture, detective, and spy cameras; cameras used by Eadweard Muybridge, Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Edward Weston; three-color cameras; photo chemistry; film (glass, roll, and sheet); tripods, light bulbs, and plate holders; and more.
The collection was established in 1896 with the blessing of the Smithsonian and the purchase of fifty photographs from the 1896 Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition. Collecting had begun previously, however, so that the Smithsonian could present a history of photography at the 1888 Ohio Centennial Exposition. The man in charge of collecting was the Smithsonian’s chief photographer, Thomas Smillie. In addition to his tasks as chief photographer, Smillie collected such items as S. F. B. Morse’s daguerreotype camera and solicited photographic papers, cameras, and other materials from a variety of commercial, governmental, and private entities. The collection has a decidedly technological bent as a result of Smillie’s initial collecting efforts and the experience of the curators who followed — all photographers themselves.
There are many experimental and commercially unsuccessful processes represented in the collection. The collection from the U.S. Patent Office of about four hundred patent models dating from the 1840s to 1908, for example, provides an opportunity to explore the ways in which people were thinking about photography and its possibilities. For example, in the upcoming International Center of Photography and George Eastman House collaborative exhibition on Southworth and Hawes, one will be able to see the featured photographers’ patent model for a daguerreotype camera. However, one won’t find a daguerreotype made by this proposed aerial daguerreotype camera.
In recent years, collecting initiatives have often been in collaboration with other NMAH curators. For example, Lisa Law’s 1960s counterculture photographs are just as interesting and relevant to the PHC as they are to the social history and domestic life curators. The PHC contains photographs of many subjects, but researchers should note that many of the other twenty-odd collections in the building have photographs in the same subject areas. In fact, in her book, At First Sight: Photographs at the Smithsonian, Merry Foresta writes that there are nearly seven hundred Smithsonian photography collections within its sixteen museums. The PHC is the broadest and most encompassing of those collections.
The collection provides many opportunities for teachers and students to learn about individual photographers and processes. Process-oriented collections include, daguerreotypes, tintypes, wet and dry plate glass negatives, ambrotypes, stereographs, platinum, cyanotypes, and gum-bichromate. The exhibit of equipment, negatives, and prints provide an understanding of historical photography that print study alone cannot. For example, within the daguerreotype collection, one can explore the equipment, the ways in which the plate and its case are assembled, and final products such as landscape images by Platt Babbitt of Niagara Falls or traditional portraiture. Or one can examine a wet-plate collodian negative, the cumbersome photographic equipment, fragile glass plates, messy chemical process, and the gorgeous albumen prints made from those plates. Or one can study a mammoth wet-plate collodian negative of General Ulysses S. Grant made by Alexander Gardner. There also are historic and contemporary examples of platinum and platinum-palladium prints that offer opportunities to compare and contrast artists, subject matter, and photographic materials from various periods.
Process is not the only avenue of study. The range of materials also offers opportunities to explore conceptual ideas within the history of photography. Lazlo Maholy-Nagy’s 1920s photograms, Betty Hahn’s 1960s prints on fabric with stitching, and the X-rays of flowers and other things by Dain Tasker challenge notions of the conventional photograph. Historical practices, such as combination printing, can be traced from Henry Peach Robinson in the 1880s to Jerry Uelsmann in the 1960s to John Paul Caponigro in the 1990s. Time and its relationship to photography are represented in mutoscope reels and visual toys, Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion studies in collotype and cyanotype, and Harold Edgerton’s Rapatronic camera and strobe-lit photographs.
Another avenue of study in the PHC is by genre of photography: pictorialism, straight photography, photojournalism, documentary photography, art photography, amateur photography, travel photography (both commercial and private), color photography, portraiture, advertising, and action photography, to name just a few.
Casting one’s net across the photographic history collection allows one to get a sense of what photography was like and who was using it throughout American history. It also allows social and cultural historians to get snapshots of American sentiments and cultural, visual, and social conventions. Stereographs and albums are an excellent example of these. For instance, the large numbers of humorous 1880s stereographs of women riding bicycles and men stuck at home with children and laundry speak directly to social and cultural anxieties about changes occurring within that era.
There are additional resources in the PHC that are not cataloged. The Science Service collection is spread throughout the museum. The Science Service News was a publication established in the 1930s to help popularize science. In the 1980s, its image morgue was shared with the Smithsonian. The PHC has a file drawer full of interesting photographic product and news press prints, ranging from the latest 1940s-era General Electric photo light bulbs to aerial photography used in the military. There are biographical files on photographers and others related to photography. The Archival Reference file contains information and brochures on process and products. There are about twelve hundred patent papers selected from patents issued by the US Patent Office from the 1840s–1940s.
In addition to appreciating individual works of art from the Photographic History Collection, one should be able to find inspiration by learning more about historic processes, studying the work of a number of photographers, seeing the breadth of work covered within a specific genre, and exploring technical and philosophical themes within the practice and history of photography. One also can gain appreciation for the commercial and experimental ventures of photographers through the apparatus collection, and learn more about the culture and environments in which photography exists.
Some works from the Smithsonian’s Collection:
Shannon Thomas Perich is Associate Curator, Photographic History Collection, Division of Culture and the Arts, at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). She received her M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University in 1996. Since then she has curated numerous shows for the NMAH and published notable articles and books, including The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family, with Richard Avedon (2007).