Hidden away in storage rooms throughout the Smithsonian is the greatest photo collection you've never seen. It is a vast treasure of images that curators at the National Museum of American History have quietly collected for more than a century from portraits by Richard Avedon to found snapshots of the late 1800s.
Read the article:
Shadows and Light (Post Magazine, April 17)
View thePhoto Gallery
Keith Jenkins and Shannon Perich, who worked together on the Washington Post Magazine photography issue, were online to field questions and comments.
Jenkins is The Washington Post Magazine's photo editor. Perich is a photography curator at the National Museum of American History.
A transcript follows.
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Shannon & Keith,
GREAT photos. Thanks!
The photo of U.S. Grant noted that it was circa 1862? It's hard to see in the photo, but it looks as though Gen. Grant is wearing the 3 stars of a Lieutenant General. I believe Grant was made Lieutenant General in February, 1864. He made the trip to Washington, D.C. for the appointment and could have had his picture taken at Brady's studio at that time.
Keith Jenkins: Thank you. We had fun going through the images in the collection. One of the neat side effects is that the more eyes you get on some of them, the more info you can gather.
The photo of the tents on the mall was like that for us; we were able to find several other images in other collections in town that enabled us to correct the date of the image. This Grant image may be the same way.
Shannon Perich: This was a great collaboration between the Washington Post Magazine and the Photographic History Collection. Keith and David must have looked at 3000 photographs! And still I think late at night, "Ohhh, I should have shown them . . ." But, I'm very happy with their choices. I actually made some discoveries about our collection. The Richard Misrach photograph is one that I had not seen before, and was actually surprised by. I know him best for his color photography.
La Plata, Md.:
As a long time photograph collector of pre-1870 images, I thought your article informative to the layman. The collecting of early photography has risen so in the past few years, it has become a very expensive hobby, but most rewarding too. I notice the African American lady with a flag on her dress, I thought that was recently in an auction I bid in, can you confirm that? I have about 2000 hard images AMBROS-TINS DAGS etc. and well over 5000 cdvs of Americana, not just portraits, but occupational scenes etc. Again great seeing something on this subject.
Shannon Perich: Hello fellow collector! What a wonderful collection you must have. I find the occupational portraits really interesting, too.
Yes, the tintype was purchased at auction. It was a very rare event, to be sure!
La Plata, Md.:
As an addenda to my first comments, I think the tintype of the drummer boys is definitely post-CW as there are gents in veterans uniforms just behind them (GAR I believe). Just an observation as I specialize in CW images, thanks.
Shannon Perich: Thanks, I will follow up on that to double check!
I presented Larry Bird of the American History Museum with a great photo of John Kennedy taken in Milwaukee in 1962. It was taken by my mother about 15 feet from his open-air car. He was with three other Wisconsin Democratic leaders and Kennedy is the only one in focus -- the others being slightly blurred -- and that effect is wonderful. The image itself is great -- made even more so when you realize how close my mother was and how little security Kennedy had. Yet Mr. Bird said the photo would get lost in the Smithsonian and suggested we take it to the Kennedy Museum in Boston. He offered to intercede should that museum reject it. (We have not had a chance to get to Boston yet.) Seeing the shots you have online, I can't help but wonder why ours was not accepted. Thank you.
Shannon Perich: There are over 25 collecting units at the National Museum of American History alone. Your photograph is one that has what I like to call cross unit interest.
AT NMAH we have careful procedures to ensure that objects don't get lost. His suggestion was one not so much of displacement, but that their area of interest might not call upon that photograph as regularly as you might like or as it might be in another collection.
Will there be an exhibition at the Smithsonian in the near future of the photographs in the Magazine article or other photographs in the Smithsonian collection?
Shannon Perich: No, there is no planned exhibition. We have to savor them in their print format!
Shannon Perich: I've had one phone call today asking about how to order prints of the images used in the Magazine. Not all of them are available because of copyright restrictions. One can go here. Select "photography".
Keith Jenkins: You can, however, order extra copies of the magazine! You can call 202-334-5313 to get information about how to do that. The cost is $1.50.
Thanks for the interesting article. Can the public access the museum's photography holdings when they aren't on exhibit? Is there any library-like system of the photos?
Shannon Perich: We are working towards an online description of the collection.
Our photographs and images of objects are mixed in with other collections in various places on the nmah website. There are also several online exhibitions at the nmah website. http://www.americanhistory.si.edu
Also, some of our images are available through the Smithsonian's photo services. http://smithsonianimages.si.edu or http://photos.si.edu.
My question is not specifically related to the article in Sunday's Magazine but is a general question about the Smithsonian. I graduated from college in 2002 with a Bachelor's degree in History and Political Science. I am in the process of applying to graduate school programs in History. It is my dream to work for a museum, ideally for the Smithsonian. Can you please advise the best way to pursue obtaining employment with the Smithsonian? I would especially love any type of research or preservation work. Thank you for your time.
Shannon Perich: Internships. No matter what field you are in, it's a great way to either test the waters of the field you think you want to work in, or to make the right contacts.
If you don't want to go that formal, then at least volunteer. If you don't have time to that on a regular basis, then at least schedule information gathering meetings with some individuals in your field of interest. Who doesn't like to talk about themselves? Ask about their trip to the position they are in and what advice they can offer you.
I started as an intern in this collection. Went away for a little while and got a call to came back.
Fairfax County, Va.:
Is there a catalogue at American History where the images can be searched?
Personally, I really like the photograph of Evelyn Nesbit. I feel as if you can look at her pic and almost envision what she saw from her eyes around her.
Shannon Bridget Murphy
Shannon Perich: No, there isn't a catalog. Merry Foresta's book AT FIRST SIGHT has a number of our images, in addition to others from around the Institution. There are also three "Guides to Photographic Collections" that give details to some collections around the Institution, including us.
The Guide to American Photographic Collections also lists the photographers in our collection, at least up to 1995. We've a few since.
You are not alone in your feelings about Evelyn. A Spanish film company is making a film about her as we speak!
Hello. I am a 7th generation Washingtonian. My family was one of the first Black families in Washington. They were formerly farmers in King George county, members of Shiloh Baptist Church, who were given safe passage to the District by Union troops during the Civil War. I have family photographs of my great great grandparents and their children - some tin types and others (which resemble cards the size of playing cards) done at various studios in Washington. Some of the studios include Paul Tralles, MP Rice & AI Rice, CM Bell, Wheeler and Castle. Are any of the original negatives or any other information available to help me identify which of my great-great grandparents' 5 children these are? The photographs from MP & AI Rice have a negative number written on the back. I also have a marriage certificate from Shiloh Baptist Church from the Dec 1873 - when my great-great grandparents were married. It included individual tin types of them as a part of that certificate package. I have no idea on how to preserve any of these photographic treasures or where I can take them for help. Thanks for your time!
Shannon Perich: Okay, so much to answer here.
First, congratulations on your ability to keep track of 7 generations, and all in D.C. I don't think I've ever met anyone who has such a long D.C. history! We live in such a transient city.
I think most of the D.C. photographers archives are at Library of Congress. Our Archives Center has the Scurlock Collection. (They have the prints and negative, we have the equipment and other 3D objects.) I would start with them, then maybe the D.C. historical society. Another place to double check would be the Index to American Photographic Collections. You can search it by photographer if you go to www.geh.org. Follow the telnet links.
Preservation. There are a number of resources out there for you. Check Light Impressions, for instance. But there are other reliable sources too. If you want more detail and not just the supplies, you can go to http://www.nedcc.org/. They also have a list of suppliers.
What is the personal feeling of being a caretaker of history, the responsibility, the knowledge needed, the awesome amount of items to go through?
Shannon Perich: I feel quite honored, actually. And I take it seriously. When I collect, I think about how important is this object or group of objects to understanding who we are today or who we were in the past? Would it skew a future historian's thinking? What do I think historians need to know about us? What don't we know about the past that could be filled in by whatever it is I might collect? But then I don't want to be over-serious, so have to be sure to collect the Fry-Cam that looks like french fries in plastic and the Charlie the Tuna camera. But, they do say something about us as consumers and eaters, don't they?
Just like my predecessors, we do our best with the current thinking on preservation standards and housing.
When I get to work through the collection, like I did with the WP Magazine, I always get to see new things. When I work with researchers, I get to expand my thinking and test out ideas.
It's a great job, really.
Hi, I was startled to see the cover photo of the pyramids because in the early 1970s, my brother went to a sale of items at the Metropolitan in NYC and bought me a photo that was obviously taken the same day. It is just a different view. It is very large and I have never taken it out of the frame that the museum had it in. What could it be -- a print or what?
Shannon Perich: OOF, too hard to tell without seeing it!
Maybe use a loupe to see what it looks like. If there is a pattern of dots, it's likely a photomechanical print. You might be able to use "Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints" by James M. Reilly to figure it out.
Hopefully he bought you a Francis Frith for cheap that is now really worth something!
What are the most requested photos and why?
With so many fabulous photos in the collection, why aren't more on exhibit more often?
Have you considered traveling exhibits?
Hope this special issue will open the doors for the public to enjoy many photo exhibition opportunities. When are they coming to Memphis?
Shannon Perich: Wow, so many questions!
1. Perhaps the most requested photographs are those of Evelyn Nesbit by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. We have half of his collection and the Hudson River Museum has the other half. As to why, well, she's gorgeous, the platinum prints are gorgeous and it's a sensational story.
2. In 1994 the Hall of Photography was disassembled. In fact, there are no more "halls-of-anything". Exhibitions are organized by stories, rather than subjects. We do exhibit in the 3rd floor gallery in NMAH. There is a WWII photography show there now, curated by Michelle Delaney. Quite interesting.
3. There is one photo show traveling with SITES.
4. There is a photo show from the National Archives that will be in Tunica, MS and a show about WWII magazine covers in Knoxville, TN. But nothing on http://www.sites.si.edu/visit/index.htm lists any Smithsonian shows in Memphis. We do lend to other museums when requested.
There is a lot of competition within the institution for funding and exhibition venues (traveling or here on site). There has to be a balance among the needs, missions, and desires of my division, the museum and the whole of the Smithsonian. Publications, like the Magazine, are a great way to show lot of people a little about who we are and what we have.
Thank you for your questions!
Can anyone submit their photographs to the Museum?
What formats? What documentation is needed? Do all copyrights have to be transferred?
Shannon Perich: We evaluate a photograph and determine if is appropriate for the collection. Sometimes it's not. It may be more appropriate for one of our sister collections. (Merry Forest in her recent book, AT FIRST SIGHT, says there are over 700 photographic collections at the Smithsonian.)
We collect a variety of formats. The more documentation the better, both technological and historical.
If we can have all rights associated with the image that's the best and cleanest way to go. However, we do respect the needs and rights of photographers and estates, so that we have an agreement that allows us to use the photograph in standard museums uses (exhibition, publication when it's not commercial, research, loan, etc.)
Washington, D.C. :
Dear Shannon Perich,
What influenced you to become a curator of photographs? Why did you choose photography over another medium?
A museum studies graduate student
Shannon Perich: Are you a GW Museum Studies grad student? I was and loved the program.
I did my undergraduate work at the University of Arizona. I was getting my BFA in photography, but not loving being a photographer and only being mediocre at it. I did an internship at the Center for Creative Photography. My first task was to disassemble a Paul Strand-Ansel Adams exhibition. Well, needless to say, I knew then and there that I would never be able to photograph like them, and that my mission was not be a photographer, but to be a curator. To write about, share, think about photography. In the end, I got the BFA in photography, a BA in art history and an MA in museum studies (with a focus on photographic collections).
Why photography? Well, its one of the most important and abundant elements of our culture. It's everywhere. We are influenced by it. We produce it. It's also a very new field. Photography was only invented in 1839. There is still a lot of room for research to be produced.
How do you know what photographs to collect?
Shannon Perich: Mmm, important question that we wrestle with everyday. We have a written collecting plan that describes the existing collection and what we are hoping to collect.
In brief, we collect for "the history of photography." That means we collect in a way to document art, science and technology of photography to show the ways in which photography is used. That includes amateur photography, scientific photography, commercial photography and fine art.
Keith and David (the writer) both got that clearly and you can see evidence of that in the Magazine spread.
Two areas that we are working to better represent are color photography and digital photography.
I would like to download one of the wonderful pictures in your piece but can find no way to do it on washingtonpost.com. The one of interest to me is the panorama of Baltimore after the 1904 fire. Any way this can be done?
Shannon Perich: Yes, you'll have a variety of formats to choose from. The direct link is here.
Otherwise go to http://smithsonianimages.si.edu or http://photos.si.edu/.
If you are publishing you will need to acquire permission from the Photographic History Collection first.
The 1892 photo of the tents on the Mall shows the GAR encampment of Civil War vets and the Sons of Veterans. My grandmother and grandfather (son of a vet.) were there then and she wrote about it in her travel journal which I have. What direction was the photo taken and what is the curved road on the left? In the middle background, the faded object appears to be the Washington Monument. Is that correct? I enjoyed the picture show very much. We need more old photos of D.C. in the Post Magazine. Cheers, Carolyn.
Shannon Perich: I think the road on the left side of the picture is what would now be Madison and the road running around the middle, maybe where 14th is now.
The Mall has undergone a number of transformations since 1892 and I'm not exactly sure.
The Washington Post ran over 300 articles about the GAR in 1892, by the way!
Thank you for the information on my family photos. As a note, I was glad to know that someone had the Scurlock photos. When I was growing up, his studio was on the corner of 9th & U Streets, NW. It was disturbing to see it go -- such a tremendous history. Now I know his works are in safe keeping with you!
Keith Jenkins: And I hope you got to see the Magazine's issue from Feb 1st 2004 where we featured a cover story on some of the Scurlock photos in the museum's collection.
Shannon Perich: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the collection! What fun! Shannon
Keith Jenkins: Thanks to all who enjoyed the magazine. We hope to do more of these in the future!
We found your slide show and narration online phenomenal.
Can we expect more slide shows? What an easy way to introduce photography and its history to many students. What exhibitions will we see this year?
Mr. Jenkins, we found your article very well written and most complimentary. Thanks for showing us a part of this collection. We hope to see evidence of more collaboration from the two of you in the future. BSA
Keith Jenkins: Actually I edited the photos and one of the magazine's editors, David Rowell, worked on the text. I will pass along your compliments; he captured the feeling of the photographs and the work that the museum is doing quite well.
Shannon Perich: Yes, the slide show is very effective technology that I hope our web office will embrace.
The exhibition planned for July, has been put on hold until 2007. Look for Henry Horenstein's Honky-Tonk photos then!
Thank you for your compliments and supporting the work that we do.