The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, and Emma Esperon, Archivist, Prints & Photographs Division.
The Prints & Photographs Division is very excited to introduce the Balthazar Korab Collection with its extraordinary array of architectural photography. The exceptional high quality images and the lack of copyright restrictions encouraged us to make this valuable collection ready for research in only two years by investing approximately 5,500 hours from 15 staff members. The full archive clocks in at over 540,000 items in a variety of photographic formats that were challenging to safely house and index. The breadth and depth of coverage spans across nearly 10,000 project folders, which primarily document the years 1950-2000 and include over 500 architects in over 700 cities, making the Korab Collection an exciting ground for research and exploration.
Balthazar Korab (1926-2013) was one of the most important architectural photographers in the United States in the 20th century and arguably one of the best at employing color to portray the modern building aesthetic as it progressed from the mid-20th to the early 21st century. He was trained as an architect in Paris and spent time in the offices of both Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen before transitioning to a career as a photographer and settling in the suburbs of Detroit.
Korab’s images appeared on the covers of hundreds of magazines. Many of the biggest names in modern architecture including Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Kessler, and Minoru Yamasaki, commissioned Korab to document their buildings. Outside of this work, Korab’s personal interests led to spectacular photo documentation of Italy, vernacular architecture in Michigan and the Midwest, natural wonders, car culture, and other subjects.
Searching and Accessing Materials
The Library will likely never be able to describe each of the 540,000 items, but we’ve summarized the contents of more than 9,000 folders in a detailed finding aid that runs to 1,400 pages. What does this mean for you? The online searchable finding aid provides building and architect names, locations, and more. Staff notes can also help you find the materials you want and to understand the scope of what’s available. The collection is arranged by Project Title according to Korab’s own filing system. Within each folder materials are organized sequentially by media type: photographs and prints, contact sheets, manuscript material, color transparencies, black & white negatives, color slides, and other visual materials.
If you are ready to dig into architecture, a growing selection of more than 2,300 photographs is already online and ready to browse through. Researchers who need to look at original materials can search the finding aid from home or in the reading room to identify folders to request. To request folders, submit the list of folders through Ask a Librarian or an on-site call slip. Since materials are stored off site, please keep in mind that requests can take up to 14 days to fulfill. (Please note that service from off-site collections is less routine while reading rooms are closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Getting the Collection Ready for Regular Use
When the Korab Collection first arrived at the Library of Congress it was in 227 bankers boxes each weighing about 30 pounds. That’s a lot of photographs and negatives arriving in one day, even for the Library!
One of the first things we had to tackle was how to organize such a massive archive, rehouse materials so that they’d be safe to store and handle, and inventory everything so we could find it again. We took a triage approach to the collection. We retained the original order of the collection—the folder categories that Korab’s office had established. The items at high risk because of the type of media or a small size that could be easily lost or more worn materials were placed in specialty “page protectors” (archival polyester or polypropylene sleeves). Some of the oldest photographs are on nitrate film for which the storage requirements are so stringent that all 650 images were digitized to simplify access.
Once the items were safely housed and stored, we could describe the materials at a folder level, capturing original notes, project titles, shoot locations, and more. All of this work culminated in a searchable finding aid to access over half a million collection items that are now happily preserved in archival boxes and folders in cold storage, keeping Balthazar Korab’s work and the architectural marvels that he photographed available for lifetimes to come. To increase access options in the future, we’re already experimenting with GIS software-based maps to help researchers visualize the scope of this collection and to aid location-based queries.
Staff members who have been working closely with the collection share some of their favorite images and features of the collection:
From Emma Esperon (lead archivist)
My favorite parts of working with this collection were the puzzles and mysteries involved in identifying buildings and learning more about architecture. One of Korab’s practices was to photograph a building from the design phase of having just the model, to construction, and then the finished building. This creates a time lapse to help us understand how a design evolved and also a portfolio for the architect, documenting much of the hard work and planning that went into a building. It is also particularly challenging to identify parts of buildings and models of buildings that were never constructed. But one construction image can lead to a domino effect in identifying a building as shown in the progression of images below.
Personally, I’ve also enjoyed seeing all of the images taken inside the car manufacturing plants. Having grown up in the Midwest myself, the car industry has always been a vital part of my communities. Seeing the molten metals being poured into molds and the behind the scenes images has been really rewarding.
Lastly, I’ve really loved this collection because it is like a time capsule from the 1950s-2000s. Buildings change and are destroyed, but the record of them can still exist in our collections. For example, this collection contains images of the World Trade Center and models of the design phase.
It also contains images of buildings that were renovated like the Rainbow Elementary School in Clinton Township, Michigan, which was originally quite colorful. And the collection offers an opportunity to see the Snowflake Motel, which was built by William Wesley Peters with input from Frank Lloyd Wright and was demolished in 2006.
From Ryan Brubacher (reference librarian)
My favorite images are the ones from Italy. Korab visited there initially as a sort of vacation, which might account for the different look. They ended up living there for a few years. The family shots of his children and wife are charming, and I like this series featuring crowns and a banana.
He also happened to be nearby when the flood hit Florence in 1966, and there are some heartbreaking shots of damage as well as the rescue efforts to save cultural artifacts afterwards. I love this shot from 1968 where the halo of the statue is shadowed across the wheel well of the automobile such that it looks as if the car is cracking. It shows you the eye he had for unique juxtapositions and delightful wonders.
The incredible project that he embarked upon with architect and scholar Astra Zarina is also high on my list. They published a book translated as “The Roof-scapes of Rome” which is now out of print and was never published in English. They examine the idea of the roof-scape from different perspectives, literally and figuratively. I could look at his images from that project all day.
The staff members who worked a lot on this project would each have different highlights and that illustrates how vast and wonderful the collection is. It is not just about the iconic shots of buildings by Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. Though those are nice too!
- Delve into the Balthazar Korab finding aid to explore the range of coverage in the collection.
- Have a look at the Korab Collection guide, which gives more information about the collection and requesting access, as well as featuring more sample images to delight your eyes!
- View digitized images from the collection. Some digital images came with the collection, and as items are selected for reproduction, they are digitized. A large portion of the digitized material relate to a book project: In 2007 before the full archive arrived, Korab selected more than 800 photographs to document 19 projects designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), and generously gifted them to the Library. These were used in a book project, Eero Saarinen: Buildings from the Balthazar Korab Archive, edited by David G. De Long and C. Ford Peatross, and published by the Library of Congress in 2008 [view catalog record].
- Looking for examples of modern architecture photographed by others? Some of the most famous masterpieces of modern architecture have been documented in the Historic American Building Survey. Carol M. Highsmith has also photographed many of the same architectural masterpieces Korab documented, allowing for comparison and study of how these iconic buildings have looked over time–search the Highsmith archive by building name or location.
Thank you for this thorough and thoroughly interesting overview. Very helpful for approaching and exploring the collection.
I had the great fortune to meet Mr. Korab and to be part of a group photo he took on the porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. MI in the late 1980s during a conference for the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects. My father is an architect and brought his family to the event.