Behind the Scenes: The Many Roles of a Photo Curator

Below is an interview with Micah Messenheimer, Associate Curator of Photography in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Micah in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room, with Jeanine Michna-Bales portfolio titled “Through Darkness to Light.” Photo by Melissa Lindberg, 2019.

Melissa: Thanks for speaking with us. Can you start out by telling us about your background prior to working here at the Library?

Micah: Yes. I actually started out as a photographer, and I have a BFA and MFA in photography. I later returned to school for dual master’s degrees in art history and library science. Before coming to the Library of Congress I worked in the Denver Art Museum’s Photography department. My work there focused more strongly on exhibitions than my work here at the Library, although there is quite a lot of overlap in my curatorial role.

Melissa: What are your main responsibilities as a photography curator in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Micah: Curators generally have four primary responsibilities: to develop, care for, interpret, and serve the collections to the public. The Library’s collection continues to grow, and I spend a substantial amount of time working to acquire new material. In its early years, the Prints & Photographs Division acquired many materials through copyright deposit, when creators would submit their works to the Library of Congress as part of the copyright registration process. Now, most arrive as gifts—whether from collectors with whom we have a long-standing relationship, from creators, or from first-time donors—or as purchases recommended by curators. The curators work as a group to propose objects for acquisition and to shape collecting priorities.

In terms of caring for the collection, I work closely with archivists to help make decisions about housing for the materials, with reference staff to coordinate service of the materials in the reading room, and with the Library’s conservators when an object needs treatment. We also work directly with researchers when photographs have special handling needs or when knowledge of the medium would aid someone’s research.

A display arranged by Micah. Photo by Micah Messenheimer, 2019.

Interpretation of the collections is done in a variety of ways at the Library, but all encompass our public service role. For example, we have a number of displays, where I might be on hand to talk about what’s on view. Depending on the situation, these might be a small group conversation or a more formal public event with written labels, as in a museum exhibition.

My written work also takes different forms depending on the venue, whether a post for the Picture This blog, longer-term research projects, or explorations of new media formats, like Story Maps. I recently published a Story Map essay about the relationship between the building of the transcontinental railroad and the work of the photographers who advocated, surveyed, or documented its massive scope, such as John Plumbe Jr., Solomon Carvalho, Alfred Hart, and Andrew J. Russell.

Detail from Micah’s “Camera and Locomotive” Story Map, which provides an interactive experience for viewers, who can click on individual nodes to view specific images.

Melissa: You recently helped acquire an album by 19th-century photographer Andrew J. Russell for the Library – can you tell us about it?

Micah: Yes. I recently worked on acquiring a Civil War-era album by Russell that is currently being cleaned by the Conservation Division. Once treatment is complete, the entire album will be scanned and the resulting digital images will be made available online. Russell worked for the U.S. Military Railroad during the Civil War and put together albums like this for high-level officials. Initially, the military realized they could generate support for projects by making a case using photographs. By 1865, the same photographs served to memorialize the war for generals like Winfield Scott Hancock, who owned this album. While the Library holds two other disbound albums, there is only one other complete album in a public collection. The makeup of each is unique.

Trestle work (no. 2,) on City Point & Army R. R., between 1861 and 1865. Photo by Andrew J. Russell. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.08264 . Photo from one of P&P’s disbound Russell albums.

Melissa: In addition to acquiring historical materials, P&P also collects more recent works — can you provide an example?

Micah: I’m very interested in photographers who look back on historical events and provide a different view or understanding. In the picture you took of me I am looking through a recent acquisition — a portfolio by Jeanine Michna-Bales titled “Through Darkness to Light.” Michna-Bales researched direct accounts of people who had escaped slavery. While specific places are very rarely mentioned, she made photographs in landscapes that evoked what was described in these narratives. To capture the emotional resonance of traveling along the Underground Railroad, she made all of the photos at night, the only time travel was possible without detection. The portfolio hasn’t yet been processed but researchers can contact the reading room to request an appointment to view it (see the Learn More section for more information). P&P has strong Civil War-era collections, and it can be valuable to consider these images in juxtaposition with this historic material.

Learn More:

2 Comments

  1. HP
    January 25, 2019 at 10:14 am

    Really enjoyed the Story Map. I can imagine how thrilling an interactive life-size map would be.

  2. John McNamara
    January 25, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Nicely done. So interesting to get a little backstory on the people behind the prints.

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