(The following was written by Barbara Orbach Natanson, head of the reference section in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, and featured in the November/December 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
The Library’s documentary photograph collections provide a rich, visual record of the past century.
Since the advent of photography in the 19th century, people have recognized the power of images to communicate. In each generation, photographers have provided visual testimony of noteworthy and everyday events. Viewed as a whole, the Library’s documentary and photojournalism collections offer a visual timeline covering more than a century.
Some of the earliest large-scale documentary projects were records of war. Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest such efforts. During the spring of 1855, Fenton produced 360 photographs of the allied armies and British military camps.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, photographer Mathew Brady planned to document the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy on a grand scale. Brady supervised a corps of traveling photographers and bought photos from private photographers fresh from the battlefield. Brady shocked America by displaying Alexander Gardner’s and James Gibson’s graphic photographs of the bloody Antietam battlefield. The New York Times said Brady “[brought] home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.”
SURVEYING LAND AND PEOPLE
The post-Civil War period saw expanding use of the camera to document territories and peoples. In 1867, Alexander Gardner photographed the western frontier as a field photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. His stereographic images bring scenery and people to life when viewed in 3-D through a stereograph viewer.
The U.S. government sponsored photographic surveys as part of several 19th-century exploratory expeditions led by Clarence King and George M. Wheeler. Stereographic photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, William Bell and Andrew J. Russell allowed the public to see parts of the continent that few had witnessed first-hand.
The drive to survey vast territories photographically was an international one. Using emerging technological advances in color photography, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) documented expanses of the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1915. The Library has digitized his 1,902 triple-frame glass negatives, making color images of landscapes, architecture and people from that era accessible to modern viewers.
Lewis Hine (1874-1940) used his camera to document the need for social reform. Working for the National Child Labor Committee in the early-20th century, Hine’s photographs and detailed captions eloquently conveyed the plight of child workers.
Under the auspices of a succession of government agencies (Resettlement Administration; Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information), Roy Stryker headed perhaps the best-known documentary effort of the 20th century. Beginning in 1935, Stryker’s photo unit employed at various times photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon and Carl Mydans, first documenting Depression-era rural dislocation and the lives of sharecroppers in the South, as well as conditions in the mid-western and western states. They went on to capture developments throughout the U.S. as the country mobilized for World War II. The project yielded more than 170,000 negatives that document many aspects of American life.
Contemporary photographers such as Carol M. Highsmith and Camilo Vergara continue to document the nation’s changing landscape. Highsmith has described her sense of urgency in documenting aspects of American life that are disappearing, such as barns, lighthouses, motor courts and eclectic roadside art. Vergara began photographing America’s in the 1970s with a focus on continuity and change. He explains, “My work asks basic questions: what was this place in the past, who uses it now and what are its current prospects?”
NEWS—AND PHOTOGRAPHS—FIT TO PRINT
Aided by the development of halftone technology at the end of the 19th century, newspapers and magazines could reproduce photographs more easily and cheaply.
George Grantham Bain, known as the “father of news photography,” recognized the hunger for pictorial news in the first decade of the 20th century. Bain employed photographers to capture newsworthy photos that he distributed to subscribing publications and, in turn collected photographs from them. The Bain Collection, comprising more than 40,000 glass negatives and corresponding prints, taken primarily in the 1910s and 1920s, richly document sports events, theater, celebrities, crime, strikes, disasters, public celebrations and political activities, including the woman suffrage campaign.
Soon joining Bain were two news photo businesses that took advantage of their proximity to the nation’s capital. The studio of George W. Harris & Martha Ewing specialized in portrait and news photography in Washington, D.C. More than 40,000 photographs show many aspects of the nation’s political and social life over the course of the first half of the 20th century. The National Photo Company subscription service, operated by Herbert French, generated more than 35,000 photographs starting around 1909 and continuing into the early 1930s.
Pictorial publishing expanded in popular magazines like Look. The Library of Congress acquired Look’s photographic archives when the magazine ceased publication in 1971. The black-and-white and color images— many unpublished—invite exploration of the personalities and pastimes of the 1950s and 1960s.
Similarly, the archives amassed by the New York World-Telegram & the Sun Newspaper and the U.S. News & World Report organizations, together comprising more than 2.2 million images, include many more photographs than the publications used. They document major world crises as well as passing fancies of the 20th century.
In recent years, the Library has acquired the photograph collections of Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly, two publications that cover activities on Capitol Hill. Comprising more than 300,000 black-and-white and color photographs, the images were taken between 1988 and 2000.
Through the Library’s commitment to preservation and access, these photographs, and all others in its custody, will continue to move and inform generations to come.
All photos from the Prints and Photographs Division.