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Executive Images

To assemble "The American Presidency" exhibition, experts scour a treasure trove of historic pictures

The long-sought-after photograph shows the Scottish terrier in the front seat of a convertible with FDR at the wheel (the President, disabled, used hand controls to drive).

One of the most compelling pictures is an enlargement of Ulysses S. Grant in his post-Presidency days. Suffering from throat cancer, he is shown swaddled in blankets, working feverishly on his memoirs, which he wanted to finish before his death, in order to support his wife.

Laura Kreiss has been finding photographs most of her life. "I have a master’s degree in anthropology," she told me, "but I’ve been interested in photographs since I was a little girl. I got my first job working for the National Institutes of Health with a medical researcher who set up a film and a photographic archive at NIH."

A few years later, when Kreiss was working at the National Library of Medicine at NIH, Woody Allen’s people called and wanted footage of mental institutions in the 1930s. "They were researching the film Zelig. I helped them find some film footage and got a credit in the movie. Boy, I thought, finding this stuff is so much more interesting than just storing films and putting numbers on things."

These days, Kreiss sticks to still pictures, usually from the Smithsonian or the Library of Congress, which she knows very well. No, she hasn’t worked for Ken Burns, the movie documentarian, but she has done research for public television shows and museums across the country.

"A lot of things are on the Internet now," Kreiss said, "and there are several on-line catalogs, but usually they’re just the tip of the iceberg of what each repository has." To find the best shots, she usually follows up with an actual visit to the repository. "I love historical photographs. They’re a window to the past," she said. "I have this unusual view of history: it’s mostly visual. I know the image, but I’m not always sure of all the historical facts."

By Michael Kernan

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