The Power of Photography

(The following is a feature story from the November/December 2016 Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, that was written by Helena Zinkham, director of the Library’s Collections and Services Directorate and chief of the Prints and Photographs Division. You can read the issue in its entirety here.) 

Photographs like this one of Marilyn Monroe taken by John Vachon for Look Magazine inspired a 2010 book.

Photographs like this one of Marilyn Monroe taken by John Vachon for Look Magazine inspired a 2010 book.

What do Marilyn Monroe, Civil War soldiers and the Wright Brothers have in common? Books about these subjects all feature photographs found at the Library of Congress.

Over more than 150 years, the Library has built an internationally significant photography collection. From the dawn of photography to today’s cell phone cameras, images in the Library’s photograph collections help historians, students and teachers, curators, journalists, novelists and filmmakers—to name a few—understand the past and tell fascinating stories.

The most frequent use of the Library’s more than 14 million photographs is to illustrate publications, which have expanded to include social media and websites. And with more than 1 million of these images available on the Library’s website, the images can be accessed around the globe.

Icons like Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy have remained popular subjects for articles, documentaries and full-length biographies, long after their deaths. They are well-represented in the more than 4 million images that comprise the Look Magazine Photograph Collection in the Library of Congress. Covering the magazine’s publishing cycle, 1937-1971, the published and unpublished photographs depict life in America over four decades.

This Civil War era photograph of an African American Union soldier with his wife and daughters is one of many that inspired a recent exhibition at the California African American Museum.

This Civil War era photograph of an African American Union soldier with his wife and daughters is one of many that inspired a recent exhibition at the California African American Museum.

Historian Jack Larkin mined the Library’s collection for images of farmers, mill girls, housemaids, gold miners, railway porters, cowboys, newsboys and stenographers to illustrate his book, “Where We Worked: A Celebration of America’s Workers and the Nation They Built.”

“I would also like to thank my unsung heroes—the visual archivists and imaging specialists at the Library of Congress,” said Larkin in the book’s acknowledgements. “They have created an extraordinary online collection, making available our nation’s greatest single resource for the visual study of the American past.”

Novelists are also inspired by photographs. The striking face of Addie Card stimulated author Elizabeth Winthrop to write “Counting on Grace”—a fictional children’s story about a girl who worked in a textile mill in Vermont at the turn of the last century. The image is one many photographed by Lewis Hine for the U.S. National Child Labor Committee—the records and photographs of which are housed in the Library of Congress. To gather background information, Winthrop hired genealogist and journalist Joe Manning to track down what happened to Card later in life. Manning became so curious about the other child laborers photographed by Hine that he launched a website, called Mornings on Maple Street, where his extensive research now chronicles the lives of more than 150 child laborers, including interviews with their descendants. “Counting on Grace” is also used in the classrooms to teach about the plight of working children.

Always a popular research topic, the Civil War continued to garner interest during its recent sesquicentennial (2011-2015). In the past six years since the Library acquired and displayed the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War photographs, more than 30 books—and many more magazines and online resources—brought the era to life with these vivid images. In 2013, the California African American Museum honored the estimated 180,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War by reproducing and displaying life-size portraits from the Liljenquist Collection. For the show’s signature image, the curator selected the rare glimpse of a Union soldier posed with his wife and two daughters.

The Library’s online Civil War photographs, like this one of President Abraham Lincoln and General McClellan on Antietam battlefield, were used to create the sets for filmmaker Salvador Litvak’s 2013 film, “Saving Lincoln.”

The Library’s online Civil War photographs, like this one of President Abraham Lincoln and General McClellan on Antietam battlefield, were used to create the sets for filmmaker Salvador Litvak’s 2013 film, “Saving Lincoln.”

Documentary filmmaker Salvador Litvak was motivated to develop a new cinematic technique—CineCollage—while reviewing the Library’s digitized Civil War photographs online. Litvak created the sets for his 2013 film “Saving Lincoln” by filming 3D composites from the digital images. He captured the actors’ performances on a green screen, which allowed him to place them in front of the historic background. Litvak said his “a-ha!” moment occurred late at night while sleuthing through the Library’s online photographs.

 “I stared at a high resolution image of a glass plate negative created in 1865. The photograph depicted wounded Union soldiers in an Army hospital. I zoomed deep into the picture and focused on an emaciated young soldier sitting at the back of the room. His eyes pierced mine, and I wondered how he would react to a visit by President Lincoln.”

To celebrate the centennial of manned, powered flight in 2003, several aviation groups attempted accurate reconstructions of the 1903 Wright Brothers airplane that were capable of flying. Their work was informed by mechanical details visible in photographs housed in the Library of Congress that were not documented in the written records.

Historian David McCullough—and many other authors—have drawn on the Wright Brothers Papers and photographs in the Library’s collections to write biographies of the pioneer aviators. McCullough, whose latest book “The Wright Brothers” features a photo of pioneering plane on its cover, credits the Library’s photograph collections with launching his career.

 “After seeing pictures of the 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Collection, I began writing my first history, ‘The Johnstown Flood’ (1968).”

The ability to digitize and make its collections available online has allowed the Library to provide access to these valuable resources in the classroom. The Library’s Teachers Page helps educators engage their students in the curriculum through the Library’s primary sources and photographs. The site offers primary source sets on topics ranging from America in wartime to America’s favorite pastime—baseball.

The Library is also sharing its baseball collections with new audiences at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. In collaboration with the Washington Nationals, “Baseball Americana from the Library of Congress” opened at Nationals Park in April 2015 and remains on view.

Baseball Americana display at Nationals Park. Courtesy The Washington Nationals.

Baseball Americana display at Nationals Park. Courtesy The Washington Nationals.

The popular photo-sharing site Flickr also allows the Library to reach new and diverse audiences through its photographs. The site has enriched the Library’s photograph collections by opening a dialogue with end users who have “tagged” or commented on the images. Since 2008 when the Flickr Commons project started, the Library has received identifying information for many thousands of photographs. Users have also submitted their own photographs to show how historic sites look today, and many have expressed their appreciation for the rich images mounted on the site by the Library. The Library’s most popular collection on Flickr remains the color photography from the Great Depression and World War II.

The Library of Congress invites you to join the conversation on its Flickr and Instagram sites. View the national picture collection any time—online or in-person at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—to find a piece of your family history, a new understanding of the past or fresh inspiration for your own creative endeavors.

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