Cyanotype, Anna Atkins. 1843-1855

Is a photograph art? Is it a scientific tool? Or is it, with the advent of smartphones, simply another way to communicate with each other?

Whichever idea you find yourself agreeing with, we know one thing is true: The practice of photography is old now, almost 180 years old including the cyanotypes shown above. And with age comes the death of copyright. This month, the New York Public Library announced the release of thousands of documents, including historical photographs, that the public is free to use or display. Among those photographs are some pretty famous photos and portfolios by some talented individuals.

We thought it might be a good idea to highlight a few of them for the budding collector or student of photography. We know you know the “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, but you may not know the work of Carl Mydans who took the famous photograph of Gen. Douglas MacArthur landing on the beaches of the Philippines. Paul Strand was championed by Alfred Stieglitz in his Gallery 291. Edward Curtis brought the lives of Native Americans to life in poetic ways, a body of work held in high esteem by the art world. Berenice Abbott’s work documenting how New York changed during the early part of the 20th century, as Eugene Atget did in Paris,  is a powerful model of storytelling. Lewis Hine’s photographs helped to enact child labor laws in this country.

Each of the photographers shown here contributed to the history of photography in meaningful ways. Many of their photographs can be viewed  and downloaded at

2nypla Photo by Carl Mydans, who was a Life magazine photographer for most of his career and worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. Here, a worker cleans a greenhouse roof in Beltsville, Md., in 1935.


3nyplhinea Known for his photographs of children working in factories, Lewis Hine also photographed immigrants. This photograph is part of a photo study of a Slavic family entering Ellis Island in 1905.

In 1935 Berenice Abbott photographed the original Penn Station in New York City, designed by McKim, Mead & White. It was demolished during the 1960s.


Walker Evans, co-creator of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with James Agee, photographed the Bethlehem, Pa., graveyard and steel mill in 1935 as part of the Farm Security Administration project.


An FSA photographer, Jack Delano photographed an ex-slave in her home in Greensboro, Ala., in May 1941. When color film became available later, he created a beautiful story of the Chicago rail yards at night.

Titled “The Vanishing Race,” this photograph was part of Edward Curtis’s turn of the century photo study about Native Americans and their way of life.

Ben Shahn photographed schoolboys in West Virginia in 1935 as part of the Farm Security Administration project about rural poverty.


Arthur Rothstein photographed house models prepared by architects for the Resettlement Administration, for a planned neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. in 1936.

Paul Strand called this image “Porch Shadows.” It appeared in the photo journal CameraWorks created by Alfred Stieglitz in 1917.
Commonly known as "Migrant Mother," this image by Dorothea Lange is an iconic photograph from the Depression years. When she wrote her captions, however, Lange identified this woman as a 32-year-old mother of seven children who was living among destitute pea pickers in Nipomo, CA in 1936.This image is part of the FSA work commissioned by the US government during the Depression. Commonly known as “Migrant Mother,” this image by Dorothea Lange is an iconic photograph from 1936 during the Depression. When she wrote her captions, Lange identified her as a 32-year-old mother of seven children who lived among destitute pea pickers in Nipomo, Calif.

More In Sight:
Haunting portraits from a 19th century master photographer
These photos show what it was like to live in New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel
Surreal photos of crashing waves caught in motion on Lake Erie