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Ready for Research: Contemporary Photography Donated by the Annenberg Foundation

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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.

Warehouse with wooden crates.
Annenberg crates arrive at off-site warehouse.
Photo by Brett Carnell, 2021.

Items in packaging lined up on top of map cases.
Unpacked Annenberg photos staged on P&P map cases. Photo by Brett Carnell, 2021.


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.

Photo showing hands securiing spacers on back of item.
Securing foam spacers to buffer mounted prints in a custom oversize box.
Photo by Jen Lewis, 2021.


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.

Photo shoinwg item sitting on large flatbed scanner with light shiining on edge.
Annenberg image on the Metis scanner.
Photo by Chris Masciangelo, 2021.

A few examples include:

Photo showing figure standing outoors holding round object
A Darhat shaman at the end of a healing ceremony suddenly slips back into trance, taken by the spirit. Photo by Hamid, Sardar-Afkhami, 2008. //

Photo showing man standing outdoors holding staff.
A Dassanech man tending his fields along the Omo River. Photo by Brent Stirton, 2007. //
Photo shwoing two women sitting outdoors, in chairs and young boy looking over the shulder of one, all smiling.
Buenaventura, Colombia. In 2014, 302 families of the Puente Nayero community created Colombia’s first urban humanitarian space, a “safe zone” within one of South America’s most violent cities. Brutally violent armed criminal organizations battling for control of the drug trade in the port city of Buenaventura had caused thousands to flee their homes. Puente Nayero leaders, with the support of a local NGO, decided to stand up to the gangs and defend their homes using nonviolent principles. Photo by Graciela Iturbide, 2015. //

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.

Ice and stone formation draped in white fabric, with person on a bridge in the distance.
Lead archivist Brett Carnell’s pick because of the surreal juxtaposition of ice, white stone, and fabric with the black crevices in the mountainside.
“Sur le Glacier du Rhône,” 2009, from the series “Alpes.” Photo by Matthieu Gafsou, 2009. //

Man wearing orange shirt riding it human-propelled rickshaw in flooded street, with other men wading nearby.
Cataloger Anne Mitchell’s pick from the Sink or Swim exhibit, which covers how people across the world are being impacted by and are addressing climate change.
Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen, 2009. //

Four pairs of legs with leaf structures covering them to their upper thighs, standing outdoors.
Processing technician, Erin Ebert recommends Chris Rainier’s Four Men for its composition.
Four men wear pandanus-leaf rain capes, for protection in a rainstorm. Highlands, NW. Irian Jaya, New Guinea. Photo by Chris Rainier, between 1990 and 2012. //

Two figures with cat faces wearing dresses with bows, standing, one holding a hoop, the other a ball in a bag.
Digitization Specialist Chris Masciangelo enjoyed Martine Roch’s humor in The Good Kids.
The Good Kids. Photo by Martine Roch, between 2000 and 2010. //

Four children around a table, one looking at a book entitled "Birds at Home," while another strokes a cat that sits on the table.
Photography curator, Adam Silvia, recommends Julie Blackmon’s “Birds at Home,” from “Domestic Vacations,” a series mixing autobiography and fiction, 2007 as a wonderful performance that conveys appreciation for the anarchy of family and everyday life.
“Birds at Home,” from “Domestic Vacations,” a series mixing autobiography and fiction, 2007. Photo by Julie Blackmon, 2007. //

Reference librarian Hanna Soltys ran across this image while preparing for an orientation on fashion photographs in the collections and commented on context provided in catalog record notes: “This one I think is fantastic with a great summary read on what’s going on in the larger frame!”
Du Juan. Photo by Sofia Sanchez, 2010. //

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Comments (3)

  1. Is it known who did the inkjet prints and what the source material was? Original prints? Transparencies? Color negatives?

    When the printing was done?

    Thanks for your attention. Well-written article.

    • Adam Silvia, Curator of Photography, with input from Brett Carnell, Archivist, offers this information: “The Annenberg Space for Photography Collection of Exhibition Prints contains color inkjet prints mounted on foam core. Most photos in the collection were shot digitally but some were originally shot on film and printed digitally. In some cases the photographs were printed at the direction of the Annenberg Space for Photography and in other cases they were supplied by the photographer.

      I realize it’s not a very satisfying answer. Unfortunately, we can’t tell which photographs were originally shot on film unless we look into the history of each individual piece. I know Annenberg printed many of the older, historical photos. Given the wide range in printing quality, however, it’s believed some photographers were supplying their own prints–asking Brett if he’s seen documentation of this in the case file.”

  2. there is a very great talent among the staff of the Prints & Photographs Division. I am in continued appreciation o the results and the accessibility of the Library of Congress’ P & P COLLECTION.

    I was able to research and print publish two books from the digital resources that LOC makes available.

    Alas, I wish that the National Archives learned from LOC instead of still relying upon the antiquated card catalog that is on the fifth floor of NARA II. And even when they do digitize an item to make sure that it can be utilized in a print publishing project

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