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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Loving At First Sight

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It rightly is called the nation's attic.

In 1846, the US congress, itself not even a century old, accepted the generous bequest of a wealthy British scientist named James Smithson to establish a national museum devoted to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." President James K. Polk signed into law the legislation to make use of Smithson's then-huge $500,000 gift and thereby set in motion the process that created the Smithsonian Institution, an entity that today is the largest museum complex in the world, encompassing no fewer than 16 museums and the National Zoo.

"The Smithsonian set for itself a task that was as modern as its mission," notes senior Smithsonian curator Merry Foresta in a remarkable – and groundbreaking – book published last month. "Unlike seventeenth-century collectors of curiosities, who amassed specimens because they were interesting or rare, the Smithsonian set out to catalog and organize the world..."

This immense undertaking – befitting the rambunctiousness of a young country at the start of the industrial revolution – had a fortuitous beginning with the invention of photography, then perhaps a decade old. "Photography, though still in its infancy, was the perfect match for this mission of collecting, knowing and showing," Foresta says. "Not long after the camera's invention, people widely acknowledged that photographs had a particular utility as historical documents capable of preserving the past for the future."

Over the ensuing century and a half, the Smithsonian – in the form of its numerous museums and collections – amassed literally thousands on thousands of specimens, from tiny bugs to 12-foot taxidermied Polar bears. But it also amassed a trove of some 13 million photographs of wondrous and overwhelming complexity and depth.

From Daguerreotypes of P.T. Barnum and his diminutive star "Tom Thumb," to NASA's telescopic X-ray images of the heavens. From another Barnum, civil war Gen. H.A. Barnum, in full uniform, showing off the penetrating gunshot wound to his groin that nearly killed him, to contemporary photographer Tina Barney showing off America's white, WASP upper crust at relaxation and play.

From Harold Edgerton's spectacular and oddly beautiful "high speed" stroboscopic photos of bullets caught in mid-air as they shatter balloons or glass, to a haunting 1916 black and white image of a kindergarten classroom in Burdine Kentucky, run by the Consolidation Coal Company. [This large format image shows a spare, all but empty, room bathed by bright light from one casement window. In the rear of the well-kept room, also bathed by this light, sits a somber looking stocky woman, in a hat and white shoes, her arm around a waif-like barefoot little girl. One only can wonder at their stories, and why they were positioned as they are at the very rear of the photograph, like so much human furniture.]

To be sure, such a staggering photography collection, taken all at once, displays no coherence, no obvious central vision. Like a haphazard collection of stuff in one's attic, it is just there – a monumental shoebox full of photographs that you know you should sort through one day, but never will.

Enter Merry Foresta, former curator of photography at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. In her new capacity, as the senior photography curator for the new Smithsonian Center for Photography, she not only plans to sort through that shoebox, she plans to put much of its contents online as well.

"This is the first product of what we hope will be many," Foresta said in an interview, referring to her new book, At First Sight – Photography at the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Press, $60 hardcover). The book – a strapping coffee table tome that is elegantly designed and stunningly printed – would be remarkable if it were only a collection of striking pictures. But, in fact, Foresta notes, even the captioning of each image resembles that of "a card catalog in a library" because that ultimately is what books like these will be: catalogs of images that readers can peruse, study – one day digitally access for reproduction for academic or even commercial ventures – and finally even to buy copies of.

Importantly, the Center for Photography is not meant to be another layer of bureaucracy, or a consolidation of every photography archive under the Smithsonian roof. If anything, what Foresta describes from her tiny office in SI's funky Arts and Industries building, is more of a facilitating clearinghouse to finally let the public know what treasures have been stored in the Institution's "fusty, musty" (albeit archivally correct) shelves.

"The way the Smithsonian maintains photo collections is in disciplinary venues," Foresta said. "For example: birds, bugs and butterflies in Natural History."

But photographs, as opposed to individual specimens, can "function across many disciplines, often simultaneously and in broad ways" she says in the introduction to At First Sight. "For example, does Mathew Brady's 1868 portrait of a Ute delegation belong at the National Portrait Gallery, where it can be prized for the individuality of its subjects, or should it reside among the several hundred thousand photographs of American Indians in the National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of American History? Does it belong in the social-history archives of the [now under construction] National Museum of the American Indian, or should we focus on Brady's artistry at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum..."

"The fact is," Foresta concludes, "Brady's portrait rightly belongs in several archives – and today, thanks to the development of digital image databases and online access, it can virtually reside in all of them."

Now, though, the most the Smithsonian has done along this line is to produce this magnificent book. There are no hotlinks to websites or online archives. That's supposed to happen over the next year or so. Since only private monies will be used for the Center, fundraising is all-important. So far some $300,000 has been raised for the project privately, with a healthy $500,000 in in-kind products and cash promised by Epson America. The Smithsonian ultimately hopes to establish a $25 million endowment to fund the entire operation.

Additionally, Foresta said the Center hopes to generate a steady stream of income from selling first-quality reproductions of public domain images in the SI collections. This, of course, calls to mind the photo reproduction service offered by the Library of Congress. Currently, the public can get reproductions of public domain images in that collection.

Foresta, whose guiding hand and good taste are obvious on every page of At First Sight, clearly has in mind something more: frameable bits of the nation's photographic history that anyone would be proud to display on a wall.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper

It is arguably the most elegant photography "card catalog" ever published. The first part of a multi-media compilation of the nation's photography collection, as well as an effort to increase public access to the images, At First Sight, is a spectacular omnium gatherum. You will be floored by the depth, breadth – and beauty – of what's between the covers of this big book, compiled by Smithsonian senior photography curator Merry Foresta.

(Photographer unidentified)

The history of photography is twinned tightly with the history of the Smithsonian Institution, so it seems especially fitting that the first picture in the book is a gorgeous 1840s Daguerreotype of the architectural model for the then-unbuilt Smithsonian castle.

[Architect James Renwick of Philadelphia may have commissioned the image to keep from having to schlep the actual model back and forth to his clients in Washington, as they mulled the design and asked for changes. Sharp-eyed viewers will note that the venerable Smithsonian castle, completed in 1855, today lacks the second tower.]

"Photo Booth Self Portrait"
Ansel Adams

Not everything in At First Sight is artsy or profound. In the section on portraiture, Foresta juxtaposes an oft-published, very intricate and somewhat self-important portrait that Edward Steichen made of himself in his studio in 1929 with this wonderful (and largely unknown) "Photo Booth Self-Portrait" of Ansel Adams, made the following year. Adams, who obviously was having fun, looks like a cross between the devil and a raccoon.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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Mail Bag: Photoshop & 'Weak Fundamentals'