The Big Picture

Our photographic collections showcase the world from the seafloor to the stars above

What the computer has been to our time, what the printing press was to an earlier age, still photography was to the 19th century—a technological innovation of startling power. Photography brought the remote world close and made it possible for people to see what they might otherwise never have seen. To this day, we live under the enchantment of the camera’s image.

The history of photography and the history of the Smithsonian do not quite coincide, but they come close. The Institution was established in 1846, less than a decade after photographic pioneers Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot announced their separate processes. Daguerre produced images on silver-coated copper plates (daguerreotypes); Talbot made positive and negative prints on paper. Early on, the new technology took note of the new Institution: there is in our collections an 1846 daguerreotype of the architect’s model of the Smithsonian Castle. Researchers, in turn, used the camera to advance the Institution’s mission, documenting everything from the variety of species to the variety of the American landscape.

In so doing, they often enhanced the documentary record. The images were not simply accurate; they were beautiful. Intended as authoritative history, they took on the additional authority of art. Though the primary purpose of the first color photograph of the solar spectrum, taken in 1908, was scientific, the result resembles nothing so much as a brilliant abstract painting from mid-century. In fact, there’s artistry in the most utilitarian of the photographic holdings we’ve compiled over the past century and a half. Those holdings—more than 13 million photographs in some 700 collections distributed among our facilities—are extraordinarily varied, and they continue to grow. The Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, for example, gathers digital images downloaded from a satellite orbiting Mars. Indeed, photography in all its functions—as record, document, surrogate specimen, artistic statement—is nowhere more broadly represented than at the Smithsonian. It’s only fitting, then, that we should now be seeking funds to establish a Smithsonian Center for Photography, not to replace what individual units do with their photos but to extend their capacity to use and display them. The center will be, in part, a spacious portal to the collections, allowing easier access to the riches they contain.

The extent of those riches will be apparent this fall with the opening—on the Mall, on-line, and in a sumptuous companion volume from Smithsonian Books—of a historic exhibition, "At First Sight." The show is to feature a selection of images gathered from throughout the Institution, and their variety and beauty are likely to be a revelation to viewers. A revelation, too, will be the vivid manner of their presentation: not only in mats and frames but also through ingenious technologies such as back projection and plasma screens. Best of all, for those who find what’s on display an inducement to see even more, interactive technology will allow unprecedented exploration of the a-to-z range and earth-to-the-heavens reach of the collections.

In celebrating the distinction of our particular collections, "At First Sight" will celebrate as well an abiding human fascination with photography. Through its momentary attention, a camera can fix indelibly in our minds a place, a person, an event. Photographs are set in time, and yet over time they accrue a wealth of additional resonance. To images from the past, we bring the future, and a larger response than they could ever have evoked when new. In the 19th century, for example, American Indians who journeyed to Washington to sign treaties had their pictures taken. Some sat for the photos wearing westernized clothes, some wore tribal dress, some mixed the two. Into those plain pictures, we now cannot help but read a complex, painful history of adjustment and loss. The old images ignite a string of new images in the mind and make photographers of us all.

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