The title of the Library’s just-opened exhibition, “Not an Ostrich,” is certain to make some people scratch their heads, wondering, “What on earth could this be about?” For many of them, the Library hopes, it will inspire a trip to the Jefferson Building to find out. Since we’re now open again, we invite you to see for yourself — but you can check out the exhibition online, too.
Either way, you’ll discover the power of photography. More than 400 pictures from the Library’s holdings take viewers on a journey through America’s history — from the beautiful and the heartening to the disturbing and the humorous.
Along the way, they’ll learn about the Library’s vast photographic collections, the art of photography and some of the women and men who have gone to extraordinary lengths to document the American scene. The pictures extend from the earliest photographic process (Robert Cornelius’ 1839 daguerreotype self-portrait) to the latest in digital photography (a Camilo José Vergara’s 2017 Harlem streetscape).
“Please take a moment to stop by the show. You can dip in and out, and you’re sure to find at least one image that will stop you in your tracks for a closer look or bring a smile to your day,” said Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division.
Renowned photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker organized the exhibition, whose full title is “Not an Ostrich: And Other Images from America’s Library.” It debuted in 2018 in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography, which enlisted Tucker as curator. At the Library, it will open in the Jefferson Building’s southwest gallery.
To put the show together, Tucker visited the Library monthly for a year and a half, working closely with photography curator Beverly Brannan and other specialists to identify images to feature. The task was enormous, considering that the division holds more than 14 million photographs, and Tucker was asked to include undigitized and never-before-exhibited items among her selections.
“I just sat there, and the staff brought me pictures,” Tucker told the New York Times in 2018. “I never knew what I was going to get. I looked at slides. I looked at contact sheets. I looked at prints. I looked at stereos. … I loved it.”
Tucker estimates that she looked at nearly a million images. “I would pick pictures that struck me visually,” she recounted in an interview with the magazine Hyperallergic. First, she whittled her choices down to about 3,000, then to around 400 that she feels are “a true representation of the Library’s collection.”
Her selections include icons such as “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, “American Gothic” by Gordon Parks, a photo of the Wright Brothers’ first flight and a recently acquired portrait of a young Harriet Tubman.
But they also include hundreds of images of everyday people going about their lives over the decades from West to East, North to South. Some are joyous (a girls’ soccer team celebrating a win). Some are troubling (a Black teenager being harassed at a North Carolina school). And others are fascinating — some in a scary way (a photographer perched atop an under-construction highrise).
The exhibit’s signature photo, “Not an Ostrich,” depicts actress Isla Bevan holding a goose — definitely not an ostrich — at a 1930 poultry show in Madison Square Garden. For those interested in actual ostriches, there’s even an 1891 photograph of a peddler of feather dusters, often made from ostrich plumes.
Tucker made sure to include the work of photographers of many different interests and backgrounds — more than 140 — in the exhibit. For example, the show includes a photo of the Apache leader Geronimo by Emme and Mayme Gerhard, trailblazing early 20th-century camerawomen; a hula-hooping grandmother by Sharon Farmer, the first African American woman to serve as White House photographer; and a self-portrait by Will Wilson of the Navajo Nation.
In support of the Annenberg show, the Library released more than 400 photos online from the exhibit, many newly digitized and rarely seen publicly before.
The Library’s presentation of “Not an Ostrich” is mostly, but not exactly, the same as the Annenberg exhibit. That’s because the Library’s gallery does not perfectly mirror the more modern Annenberg space, and some captions were edited for the Library’s audience, said Cheryl Regan of the Exhibits Office.
At the Library, the show has 11 sections mounted across 10 walls. About 70 framed reproductions are included — the exhibit consists exclusively of reproductions — accompanied by digital slide shows featuring hundreds more photographs and a 30-minute documentary, “America’s Library.”
Eight exhibit sections explore the categories of photographers; panoramas; portraits; icons; the built environment; arts, sports and leisure; social, political and religious life; and science and business. Another three cover the work of Vergara, Carol M. Highsmith and the Detroit Publishing Company.
The latter two share a wall, offering views of America separated by a half century or so. Highsmith has been documenting the nation’s culture, people and landscapes for more than four decades. Before her, the Detroit Publishing Company, one of the world’s major image producers from 1895 to 1924, chronicled natural environments and cities across the U.S.
“Taken together, the scope and sheer tenacity applied by both Carol Highsmith and the Detroit Publishing Company in creating a visual portrait the United States is awe inspiring,” Regan said.
Besides the juxtaposition of Highsmith and Detroit Publishing, Regan said she finds photos by Stanley Kubrick especially intriguing — there are two in the show. One is a 1947 photo of the bodybuilder Gene Jantzen with his wife and baby son; the other is a quirky image of three men testing a mattress at a 1950 furniture convention.
Known for his films — “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange” — Kubrick was a staff photographer at Look magazine before he pursued filmmaking.
“It’s interesting to look at young Stanley Kubrick and try to figure out, is his aesthetic getting established early on, so that it comes out in his later film work in interesting ways?” Regan said.
Personal tastes aside, Regan believes visitors will find the exhibit exciting. “I hope that they find surprises, that it piques their curiosity,” she said. “I hope they go online to see millions more images in the Library’s collections.”
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