The National Archives, which holds five million photographic glimpes of America in repose, has placed 191 of these images in frames for the first photo show in the Archives' 35-year history.
The exhibit opens today, and visitors will have almost a full year to walk through the nicely designed show, which ranges from early views of Washington -- a new dome being erected on the Capitol, cows wading in the marshes of the Anacostia River -- to Dustbowl America, to crowds gathered at the Washington Monument for a 1963 Freedom Rally.
"The American Image," as the show and its $10, 200-page catalogue are both titled, includes the work of several landmark American photographers: the 19th-century shots of Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson and Mathew Brady; the reform-inspiring sociological studies of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, and the 20th-century landscapes of Ansel Adams.
Some of the images are unusually strong: a Watkins panorama of Yosemite Valley; an eerie Brady glimpse of the ruins of Richmond after the Civil War, with ravaged walls fading into the distance like an American echo of the crumbled Roman empire; Hine's classic group portrait of young breaker boys, who labored endlessly to pummel giant chunks of coal into small chips; a deco-esque view of a generator station at Pickwick Dam; Helen Keller touching the face of President Eisenhower; a long view to the beach at Coney Island from the Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park.
And yet, ultimately, "The American Image' fails as a unified photographic panorama, largely because of some quirks of the immense bureaucracy involved in the federal filing system. Absent here, for instance, are examples of the thousands of important Depression images made by photographers like Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration as part of FDR's New Deal. Those photos are held by the Library of Congress.
And then there is the matter of images made privately by photographers like Adams, whose representations here are weak in comparison with the total body of his work. A glimpse of the New York skyline by an anonymous photographer seems striking at first, but pales instantly when placed beside Berenice Abbott's classic "New York at Night." And the views of World War II certainly evoke the sense of battle, but with little of the gritty immediacy captured in the wire services' daily coverage of that visual epic. And what is American photography without the perceptions of Robert Frank?
Perhaps these shortcomings were inevitable, given the show's creation by committee. A series of archivists and volunteers first selected 1,000 images that broadly defined the Archives' collection. This group of photos was distilled to 400 by a jury of four, which included three federal bureaucrats and New York collector Sam Wagstaff, whose appetite for photographs is voracious albeit nouveau. Wagstaff has been collecting for less than 10 years.
If the show succeeds in its self-appointed goal of representing the range of the Archives collection (and credit is due to Gerd Sander, of the Sander Gallery here, who made all of the contemporary prints from original negatives), it certainly fails at its other goal: raising "intriguing questions about how we perceive ourselves." That task was done cohesively last year in the book, "That Championship Pig," which collected a multitude of American self-images as conceived through photography.
The Archives show may merely open the eyes of its visitors to some of the visual delights available through photography. And if the thought of collecting seems prohibitively expensive, a trip to the Archives' 18th floor and $5 will procure an 8-by-10 inch print of any image in the show.