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View of a small wooden home surrounded by trees. A smiling baby in high chair is visible through an open door.
Home of one member of Ola self-help sawmill co-op, Gem County, Idaho. "She likes to sit in the door and watch the geese." General caption 48. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b35390

Behind the Scenes: A Curator Explores Women’s Stories

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

Melissa: Thank you for talking with us! Can you tell us briefly about your background and how you came to work in the Prints & Photographs Division (P&P)?

Woman stands next to large format camera.
Kate Fogle stands next to a Deardorff Precision Enlarging, Reducing, and Copying Camera. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2023.

Kate: As an undergraduate, I majored in creative writing with a minor in French, so I essentially came to institutional work with photography fresh. I do my own film photography as well as use historical photographic processes, and I grew to realize I wanted to meld my love of the materials with a day-to-day job. My undergraduate degree required an internship component, so I applied for a Junior Fellowship at the Library of Congress, and I was luckily chosen. I did my project in the Preservation Research and Testing Division, where I worked on a project related to daguerreotype cover glasses, looking at the historical trajectory of glass manufacturing and how innovations within that field influenced the types of glass that were utilized by these earliest photographers to protect the fragile daguerreotype image. It was a fascinating project, and it gave me an opportunity to do research, which is one of my true loves.

When I really started working with photographic materials, I was living in New York City. I assisted a female photographer doing archival work, processed materials at the Burns Archive, and wore many hats at a historic house museum called the Alice Austen House. These institutions allowed me to engage with this work, but I quickly realized that I needed a degree to go further.

My graduate degree is in photography preservation and collections management from a program in Toronto, Canada. I graduated in 2019, but COVID really slowed my job search, and it wasn’t until September of 2021 that I saw the announcement for this position and then I started the position in 2022, after having recently become a parent.

Melissa: What are some of your primary responsibilities as a curator here in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Kate: I would say that one key aspect of the job is learning what is in the existing collections because that knowledge really informs the kinds of materials we as curators work to acquire for the collections. We’re living in a time where we are thinking a lot about what inclusion means and what is equitable in terms of who the collections represent. When we evaluate materials for donation or purchase, we know that new acquisitions can amplify, and sometimes also challenge, the existing collections.

In addition to acquisition work, the public service aspect of the job is really important. In my experience, curatorial work at the Library, as compared with museums, tends to involve working more directly with the public, and I really like that. I think fielding reference questions is exciting because it helps you tease out parts of the collection that may not have been on your radar before and grow a knowledge base around those materials. Part of bringing the collections to the public involves speaking to the public about the collections and writing about the collections (related to the latter, I write for this blog!).

In terms of my research, my interest focuses on photos created by or that depict women, as this imagery in particular deals with their erasures from the established canon of photographic history. It is important to build our understanding that women have been at the fore of photographic invention and advancement and that they should be acknowledged for that and included in more collections and conversations as such. It’s also important to me to work with more vernacular materials, things like photographic albums and amateur imagery that have historical importance but have been only more recently acknowledged within this framework.

Melissa: Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve been working on recently?

Kate: In keeping with my passion and interest in highlighting women’s stories, we recently acquired a photographic scrapbook album made by a woman named Katherine Murphy, who was a nurse in World War I and documented her time serving with a medical unit in France. It complements our existing American National Red Cross collection.

Woman stands above album, gesturing toward a photograph.
Kate Fogle with photographic scrapbook from the Katherine Lucy Murphy collection of WWI Red Cross photographs. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2023.

Nurses feature largely in our American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, and this image is especially poignant, with the caption describing a nurse tending to a dying man found with shoes meant as a gift for his child in his pockets. It is incredible to have such a robust photographic representation of this facet of women’s work during wartime here in P&P.

Nurse stands over wounded soldier lying on bed. Two shoes hang on wall above headboard.
Two little shoes found in the pockets of a mortally wounded Belgian soldier, have touched the heart strings of the nurses, attendants and physicians in the French Hospital where he lies at the point of death… 1914. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.02969

While it’s fun to work with collections that relate to my growing specialty in women and photography, I’m also enjoying exploring the broader bounty of material here in the Prints & Photographs Division. For example, I’m currently working with my archivist colleague, Leah Rios, on a presentation about the Robert H. McNeill family collection that we will be offering early next year as part of the Prints & Photographs Division’s Finding Pictures webinar series. Robert McNeill was a D.C.-based Black photographer and had a long career documenting the lives and experiences of African Americans in the city. The collection was recently processed, making it more accessible to the public.

I really appreciate the amount of vernacular imagery found in the McNeill collection. These images are part of an album that provides pictorial context for Mr. McNeill’s life:

Page from photo album showing two photographs, one featuring two people in water and the other a portrait of a standing woman and man.
My bro. & sister at Colton, Md., 1933 ; My bro. & sister, 1932. Photos from the Robert H. McNeill family collection. https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.88395

In terms of in-person events, I recently gave a presentation related to photographer Dorothea Lange to a group of high school seniors. A lot of people are familiar with Lange’s famous Migrant Mother series, but this was an opportunity to highlight some of her other work with the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration.

I love that Dorothea was up in my home state of Idaho taking photographs. This image below underscores the unique experience and resiliency of a family living in a rural environment. And what a sweet, smiling baby!

View of a small wooden home surrounded by trees. A smiling baby in high chair is visible through an open door.
Home of one member of Ola self-help sawmill co-op, Gem County, Idaho. “She likes to sit in the door and watch the geese.” General caption 48. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1939. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b35390

Beyond photographs, P&P holds textual documents created by Dorothea and other Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographers in the form of photographic notes and captions. This page provides background for geographic locales and situational details in Lange’s own words:

Dorothea Lange's holographic captions for photos in LOTs 344-345, 1936 or 1937
Dorothea Lange’s holographic captions for photos in LOTs 344-345, 1936 or 1937. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54321

It is wonderful to be able to explore these materials and find my own voice with them, and to connect people with these amazing collections.

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Comments (2)

  1. A terrific interview, remarkable to see the Lange captions. Thanks so much for discussing Robert McNeill and the Katherine Murphy album. You’re doing amazing work.

  2. Thanks for the peek at some evocative (albeit little-known) photographs from the Prints and Photographs Division’s collection. And for reminding us of how hands-on experience with media and materials strengthens a curator’s intellectual understanding of and insights into collection materials. After all, we would not want a curator of musical collections who did not also play an instrument!

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