Fourteen million pictures have the power to document a nation as diverse as the United States – but such a collection seems almost too vast to comprehend. This year, audiences in Los Angeles were offered a unique look at a cross section of the photography collection at the Library of Congress.
L.A.’s Annenberg Space for Photography organized the largest exhibition of photographs from the Library ever displayed on the West Coast. “Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library” included nearly 500 images – from the “first selfie” at the dawn of photography through pivotal moments in history and life today.
The exhibition, closing Sept. 9, was the brainchild of Wallis Annenberg, chair, president and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation, who made the show and a companion film possible in an extraordinary gesture of support for the Library. Here she answers a few questions about the exhibit.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Photography brings me into intimate focus with people, places and things on a timeless basis. I love to look at pictures of the Civil War, sports and joyful people interacting. It is one of the most personal art forms, capturing a moment in time – good or bad – that can be interpreted in so many different ways. I founded the Annenberg Space for Photography because I wanted to share my passion for this art form with the city of Los Angeles and provide a cultural venue solely dedicated to photography. That’s why admission is free, so that everyone in the community can enjoy our exhibits.
What drew your attention to the Library and its massive collection of photographs?
I read an article about Carol Highsmith donating her entire body of work to the Library of Congress, which includes more than 100,000 images. That compelled me to learn more about the treasures held by our nation’s library. Once I understood how large the collection is, I realized how powerful it would be to share some of the stories that live within that incredible photographic collection. We’re so proud to be the first institution to bring a large-scale exhibition of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division to the West Coast.
For the exhibition, what kind of story did you hope to tell?
Anne Wilkes Tucker, our esteemed curator, put together an exhibit that truly reflects America in images. Each photograph exposes us to just a fraction of the millions of American stories held in the Library of Congress, from the iconic to the absurd. Guests who have been to the Annenberg Space for Photography have been surprised at the breadth and depth of the images in the Library’s collection. The show has a little something for everyone – from landscapes to portraits to arts, culture, politics, sports and technology. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and is a testament to the Library’s reach throughout the country.
Do you have a favorite image in the exhibition?
There is a photograph from the Detroit Publishing Company called “A Monday Washing” that intrigues me. It is an image from 1900 in New York City showing dozens of clotheslines stretched between apartments. I just love the photo’s composition and the slice-of-life moment it represents.
How do photographs help people understand our history and culture?
Though cameras and technology have changed over the years, nothing captures a moment, an era or a story like a photograph. They are worth a thousand words because they offer proof of life. Still images become part of our collective memory and can remind us of how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.