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Executive Images

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

Sometimes old photographs hold their secrets for years.

A noted Civil War picture called "Confederate Dead on Matthews Hill" at Bull Run showed four dead soldiers in a forest clearing. But about 25 years ago a historian found another shot of the same four men in the same clearing. And they were alive. The "corpses," apparently, were staged.

 Then there’s the well-known picture of the crowd at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Civil War cemetery. A few decades ago someone examined it with a magnifying glass and discovered that it actually showed Abraham Lincoln, a tiny bareheaded figure, probably looking over the speech itself. This is the only image of him at Gettysburg that day.

Sometimes finding the old photographs themselves is an adventure. Laura Kreiss, a picture researcher for "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," the new permanent exhibition at the National Museum of American History, recalled her ordeal in trying to locate a picture of Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan speaking to a group of loggers from a stump in 1896—literally, a stump speech.

"For days I turned the place upside down," Kreiss said. "It wasn’t under ‘Presidential Elections,’ wasn’t under ‘Bryan,’ or ‘Campaigns.’ I mentioned this to a staff member. It turns out it was in a file cabinet that had been moved to a temporary storage area." The photograph is now featured in the media section of the exhibition.

Finding the right pictures can be a lifework of frustration and triumph. The problems are obvious: Exactly how do you categorize a particular photograph and where do you file it? Many institutions and agencies don’t have universal cataloging rules; how a picture is classified seems to depend mostly on the person filing it.

In Washington the search for photographs is a thriving business, for the city is up to here in old pictures.

"The Smithsonian alone has about six million photographs in various archives," said Kreiss, who worked on a massive inventory of the Institution’s objects in the 1980s.

But a photo archive is a bit like the Egyptian desert—no one knows what ancient wonders it holds. It takes an expert to unearth these treasures. "You have to rely on good archivists who know their collections," said Kreiss, who has been freelancing for the Smithsonian for 20 years.

"You want, say, some farmers picking cotton in the 1940s. Which repository would have them? Well, probably several in Washington. I would check the Department of Agriculture, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the Museum of American History. It can be very labor intensive, especially if you’re trying to find the best photographs."

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