The following is a guest post by Aliza Leventhal, Head, Technical Services, Prints & Photographs Division.
When the Annenberg Space for Photography closed in June 2020, they offered the Library of Congress more than 900 high quality prints from ten of their exhibitions. We responded enthusiastically to this rare opportunity to add work by 329 contemporary photographers to the collections. In a year when we organized and described 350,000 items using the standard archival description and housing techniques that work well for large collections, we also rose to the challenge of providing intensive, special attention for what is now the Annenberg Space for Photography Collection of Exhibition Prints.
To provide the public with a way to experience the timely subject matter and modern photographic techniques in the Annenberg Collection, the Prints & Photographs Division (P&P) digitized each photo, created item-level descriptions, and worked closely with the Conservation Division to make custom housing for the sensitive surfaces of the prints. Here’s the story of a lively and successful year—from a gift agreement to online access.
The 49 oversize wood crates filled with carefully wrapped prints traveled safely across country in several tractor trailer shipments. Stringent security and pandemic health requirements added unique complications that were overcome by careful coordination among the Annenberg Center; P&P; the Library’s acquisition, conservation, and off-site storage departments; and the art shipment company. The crates filled a lot of floor space and pallet racking in the warehouse receiving area, which meant that P&P had to move quickly to reduce the footprint. In only 10 months, each crate was brought to our work space on Capitol Hill. After we unpacked and inventoried the collection, most prints fit on the tops of map cases. But they couldn’t stay there.
The exhibition prints presented preservation challenges, because these predominantly color images were created with an inkjet printer and were mounted onto foam core or aluminum. Many prints are also of considerable size with many exceeding 4’ in either length or height. These factors influenced the handling and housing decisions and also reinforced the benefit of scanning the entire collection to limit the need to access the physical items. The Library of Congress is fortunate to have conservators who excel in solving new problems.
Custom solutions were developed for both permanent housing and for transport housing to safely move the collection to and from off-site storage. Preservation Specialist Jen Lewis focused on protecting the fragile surface of inkjet prints. Because the prints are highly susceptible to scratches, she interleaved sheets of smooth inert Tyvek between the prints to protect them. Each group of photographs was secured with a piece of Tyvek tape that could be removed for access, and snugly bundled to prevent sliding and damage.
The size and mounts of the photographs also presented scanning issues. Processing technician Erin Ebert noted that, “The larger aluminum mounts were the most challenging, since they were the heaviest and had sharp corners!” Chris Masciangelo, digitization specialist, added that the use of modern photography techniques, such as the lenticular images by photographer Chris Levin, were difficult to effectively scan to capture the changing views intended to be seen when the physical print is viewed from different angles. Fortunately, P&P has a Metis scanner designed for many kinds of art work, and we were able to capture each image with relative ease, including scanning photos behind glass kept in their original frames. As with any of P&P’s collections, color accuracy was a concern and a high priority for the Annenberg collection.
A few examples include:
Developing a Description
You can find out what’s in the collection through item-level catalog records that include a thumbnail-size image. Group level records summarize each exhibition. P&P photography curator Adam Silvia described the Annenberg Space for Photography’s exhibitions of photography as “visionary and inspiring, tackling pressing subjects, such as rising sea levels in coastal communities and the plight of refugees, and providing visitors with a fresh perspective on American culture.”
Founded in 2009 in Los Angeles, CA, the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibited images that span a time period (predominantly from the early 2000s) that touch on many topics that are new to the Library’s primarily historical photography collections. Cataloger Anne Mitchell noted that “the contemporary subject matter in the fashion, beauty, climate change, country music, political unrest, refugees, and Indigenous culture images along with the new digital technologies are fresh additions to subjects covered in our collections.” Over 30 new terms were proposed to P&P’s Thesaurus for Graphic Material (TGM), including aquaculture, humanitarian zones, and tummy tucks.
Explore the Collection!
As the scanning, description, and rehousing efforts come to a close we invite you to explore and enjoy the visually stimulating and thought provoking images in this collection. To start off, here are a few favorites from the P&P team.
- View digitized images from the Annenberg Space for Photography Collection of Exhibition Prints. A visit to the Library of Congress buildings will enable you to see them larger!
- Read about an earlier collaboration with the Annenberg Space for Photography, which exhibited a wonderful variety of Prints & Photographs Division photographs in a 2018 exhibit: “‘Not an Ostrich” Exhibit Image Inspires Feathery Detour.”
- Prints & Photographs Division researchers will benefit from the ongoing opportunity to explore the Annenberg Space for Photography’s exhibition content in depth. Researchers also have the opportunity to revisit the Library of Congress’s past exhibits, many of which tap the photography collections.